If you’ve done much fiction writing, it’s probably happened to you. You’re cooking along on a story or a novel, describing things as they happen. Then all of a sudden…you hit a brick wall. It’s not that you don’t know where your story goes in story terms — it’s that you don’t know how to describe what needs to happen next. I’m not talking about plot or story structure; I’m talking about scene-building and sensual details.
Let me give you an example. I recently wrote a novel that required me to know what it looked like, felt like and smelled like in about 40 different locations — on boats of one size or another, different areas of different ships, on the high seas off the east coast of South America vs. the west coast of Africa — etc. etc. etc.
The sensual details of a narrator’s experience are, to me, what are both most important and most pleasurable in the process of writing — especially writing long-form fiction like novels.
For me to enjoy writing a scene about being in the hold of a Bengali container ship, I need to have a sense of what it’s like there. My viewpoint character’s very tangible reality needs to become my reality. And yet this asshole insisted on doing crap I’d never done and going places I’d never been.
What a prick!! You believe the brass ones on this joker?
Sure, I can go back and find the memoirs of a Bengali sailor, if they exist; I can find an article about what it’s like to be on a ship; blah blah blah. I can do all of those things — but if I do them in the middle of my writing day, then the fiction doesn’t get written. Especially when I’m on a deadline, I simply can’t do all the research that is suggested by a plot that’s boiling over. That’s a sign that the plot is going swimmingly. Unfortunately, it’s also a huge pain in my ass.
This is one of the things I find most challenging about writing long-form fiction. If I’m doing it right, I run up against stuff I don’t know how to do. Some things are easy. Interpersonal stuff? Easy as pie, Bubba. I’m pretty good at imagining what it would be like for a middle-class, educated goth chick to confront her mother about her upbringing and say “You never loved me!” blah blah blah. I know what a shitty dive bar in Fresno smells like.
But as for what it feels like to jump out of a Coast Guard helicopter into storm waters off Santa Barbara, or crawl through a cave half a mile underground? I haven’t the foggiest.
People who have never written ten words of fiction, people who are seasoned fiction-writing professionals, and everyone in between, will tell you that the way to deal with this problem is to “Make it up.” That seems as obvious to them as they feel it should to me. Makes sense, right?
But “make it up,” to a fiction writer, has infinite permutations to it. The entire job description consists of “make it up,” so telling me to “make it up” is like telling a surgeon to “operate.” If you feel qualified to tell me that I should “make it up,” then you write the New York Times best-seller. Go ahead…I’m waiting.
“Make it up” is the hardest thing in the world for me when i don’t have a natural reference point for an experience. For me, with my style of composition, one detail depends on the detail before it. What kind of entrance a Bengali container ship has from the main deck to the deck below determines what it feels like to be there, to go through the entrance, to find a bunch of zombies puking green muck on you and howling, “Brains!!”
It’s awfully hard to keep a narrative flow going when you have big fat chunks of nothing in your writing. The details are not just critical in creating a finished piece of prose. To me, they’re critical in writing the next sentence. In order to get a flow going, I need to know not just whether my narrator’s boots make a clunking sound on the deck of the container ship, but what kind of clunking sound they make. I have to practically be able to hear it, and to smell the wind off the ocean as well as the dead bodies floating in the bay.
Thankfully, I’ve never smelled a San Francisco Bay choked with dead bodies — and I sure as hell hope I never do. There’s a lot of imagining and some not-imagining (aka, “research”) in figuring out just what it would smell like. If I haven’t done that before I sit down to write, I run into the potential problem of not knowing what to put down on the (virtual) page.
Of course, you can always write the “bare bones” of the action and leave the details to future rewrites, right? Easy! Easy as pie!
Yeah, I tried that.
The result? Sparkling prose. Stirring literature. Pathos! Excitement! Drama! Question marks! Stuff in brackets!
I’d end up typing whole paragraphs that looked something like this:
We ran across the ??steel?? deck and found the ??hatch?? and took the ??spiral stairs?? to ??Deck 4??, where we knew we’d find a ??med kit?? we could scavenge for ??thiopentone?? [They find zombies hiding somewhere in the nooks and crannies of whatever a bengali container ship has on its second deck [[how are decks designated on container ships again?]]]. Then the engines began to ??throb??…
Isn’t that thrilling and exciting prose? Personally, I’m on the edge of my seat. When can I expect my Pulitzer again? Actually, I think I’d prefer to win the Nebula first — then the Pulitzer. Can you just send it to my agent’s office? Thanks.
Sure, that’s not what the publisher or the reader is going to see, but that’s hardly the point. The point is, it’s no goddamn fun to write.
Maybe you’ve encountered this problem in your own writing. It could be virtually any situation; it’s the thing that brings your narrative to a grinding halt, because you’re not sure how to describe what happens next.
The only way to get through it is to get through it. The best technique I found is to make everything up — to the point of making up more details than are necessary. I superimpose other experiences that I have had — or feel like I might have had — on top of the ones I haven’t.
For me, the thing that works better rather than writing paragraphs packed with placeholders and question marks is writing fiction packed with sensual details that are complete and utter bullshit. I know a Bengali container ship doesn’t smell like the cargo hold of a C-5, but I’ve been in the cargo hold of a C-5 and I’ve never been in a Bengali container ship.
The lesson, for me, is that going back and taking out inaccurate details is a hell of a lot easier than adding ones in over question marks and crap in brackets.
For me, whether in fiction, fantasy or reality, the sensual facts of an experience are the things I retain — sights, smells, sounds, tastes, feelings.
Yes, I do — in most cases — want these to be accurate in my final draft.
But when it comes to a first draft, those details don’t need to be accurate. They just need to be compelling.
The conclusion? “Use question marks, brackets and placeholders at your peril.” Here endeth the lesson.