I’ve been working on revisions for Contamination, the sequel to my first novel, Manifestation. One of the important things I try to focus on during revisions is the level of detail I put into certain descriptions, including those of the characters, the setting, and people’s emotions.
The first draft, in a way, is just the skeleton of the novel to come. I write the bare-bones draft down in order to lay out the story and cover all of the key points. I certainly try to be as descriptive as possible along the way, but sometimes I look back at a scene and feel like it needs to be fleshed out a bit more.
When this happens, I find that it helps to pick out certain key visual elements that will serve as descriptive markers for the character or piece of the setting I’m describing. I don’t necessarily need to go into excruciating detail about everything from head to toe. Instead, I pick out the most important and visually distinctive details I can think of to help get the image across.
To give an example, here’s a few descriptions from the most recent scene I was editing today. The first is a grocery store in a small town:
There was only one store in the whole town. It was small and probably family-owned.
Not much of a description. Fairly bleh. And it doesn’t really tell the reader anything about the store, other than that it’s “small.”
I revised it to this:
There was only one store in the whole town. It was a small grocer’s, one that wasn’t part of any chain Gabby was familiar with. The sign above the front entrance, which read “Zeilman’s,” was made of wood and hand-painted. She guessed it was probably family-owned.
That’s not an excessive amount of detail, but I think it does a good job adding some character to the little store. The reader now knows that this isn’t part of a big supermarket chain, and it should seem more quaint and unfamiliar. The hand-painted wooden sign gives it a real “Mom & Pop Shop” type of feeling. The reader’s imagination will fill in the rest of the details, but those details should be “small town” details. For example, you probably wouldn’t picture an automatic sliding glass door or any bright neon signs in this store.
The second description starts off even more vague:
Gabby looked up and peered over the tops of the shelves to spot a police officer who had just walked in.
This isn’t really much detail at all. “A police officer” could mean just about anything. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time describing every visual detail of this officer, but I did add one simple piece to his description:
Gabby looked up and peered over the tops of the shelves to spot a police officer who had just walked in. He was wearing the uniform of a highway patrolman.
Not much of a change, but it tells us something more about this man. He’s not a local street cop. He’s not a detective in a suit. He’s highway patrol. The reader’s own imagination will fill in the rest of the details: perhaps they see him in a tan uniform instead of a blue one, or sporting a mustache.
Let’s look at one last revision, also a minor one:
Carl looked dizzy.
This is a classic example of violating “Show, Don’t Tell.” I shouldn’t have to tell you that Carl (the highway patrolman) is dizzy. I should be able to describe him in a way that helps you figure it out for yourself:
Carl swayed on his feet and held a hand to his head.
That’s not a big change, but it’s an important one. It’s still a brief, simple sentence. But it’s one that shows Carl’s actions and body language. This gives a clear feeling of his dizziness, without me actually telling the reader he is dizzy. I think that’s an important change.
I’m going to be doing these kinds of changes all throughout the current revision, which is Draft Two of the novel. I’ll also be looking for ways to strengthen the plot and develop the themes and motifs. But those are topics for another blog post.
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