Colored by Emotions

A good novel values point of view above all else. A church basement might sport a ring of chairs for a twelve-step meeting, for instance. Are you going to describe the chairs, or do you envision them through the eyes of a prescription-drug addict who is reluctant to expose himself to the chairs’ occupants? How does he feel when he sits down, seeing his knees are too close to his neighbors’? When you charge a scene with emotion, the reader’s experience of that basement can change radically.

Don’t write as though your character is a tourist. She has an attitude toward each new environment, even if it is as pedestrian as eagerness for the vegetables at Whole Foods. Rather than describing a plastic sack of quinoa, how about telling us her attitude toward the long-haired sixties survivor examining its label? Or her reaction to the sight of their vacuum-packed chicken. What’s with all that plastic?

You want to describe what is unique about the character’s environment, not a bunch of physical markers that anybody with a phone camera can capture. Rather than the dimensions of a room he is entering, describe how the cavernous room makes him feel. Does he have past associations with large rooms? Even a passing sentence of playing in a school gym and being persecuted in dodgeball adds to our knowledge of his personality.

That’s when you know you’ve moved beyond being a spectator. Everything is viewed through a filter that is determined by the character’s mood and past history. Narrating the pink blush inside the blossom of a dogwood petal is good, but how about the character’s feeling so great because it’s spring at last?

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for descriptive work. If you have descriptions that merely fill out the setting, stop and think about how they affect the character’s mood. Where is she in the novel at this point? How could you use a stray sight to offset her ongoing gloom, for instance? Now you’re using description as part of your character-based arsenal.

“The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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