Purple Prose + release

Bringing Scenes to Life: Guest Post

by David Farland @DavidFarland

I would like to welcome David Farland to my blog today. He often teaches writing workshops, and has trained a number of people who went on to become international bestselling authors—people like Brandon Sanderson in fantasy, Brandon Mull in middle-grade fiction, and Stephenie Meyer in young adult fiction. In addition to being an author of adult fantasy, he has just released his YA fantasy novel, Nightingale (blurb at the end of post).


Here’s an exercise that I use to help teach authors how to handle an opening scene.

1) Especially at the beginning of a tale, use “resonators” to better tie into your audience's subconscious. "Resonators" are often words that identify your piece as belonging to a particular genre, such as fantasy, romance, or horror. They are part of the secret language that is used within a particular genre to give the writing more power by referring to previous works written in that genre.
2) Avoid the use of “to be” verbs in the opening of your tale. In particular, if you describe an inanimate object, try to do it using only active verbs. It is all right to use metaphors and similes to create motion. For example, “hoary pines guarded the hillside, while an ancient rock brooded at its top.”
3) Appeal to all of the senses--sight (don’t just describe the colors of things or their shapes, but also their textures), sound, smell, taste, touch (hot/cold/wet/dry/ firmness/softness). A great rule of thumb is that if you want to bring a thing to life, really get the reader to focus on it, you need to describe it at least three times, preferably using different senses so that you don’t become repetitious.
4) Create a sense of physical motion in your description. There are several ways to do this. For example, you can have physical motion as mentioned in point two. But you can also have motion nearby. For example, if I were to continue describing the hill, I might place crows flying up from the pines, or a stiff wind that makes the boughs sway.
5) Add a sense of temporal motion in your description. For example, in describing a car you might describe how it has changed over time—from the moment that it was bought new in the showroom, to what it looks like now, to what it might look in another twenty years.
6) Add emotive motion to your description. Describe precisely what your protagonist feels about the place or thing that he is seeing, but pay particular attention to how that emotion changes. It is all right to use internal dialog.
7) Use precise language. That means that if you are describing a person, consider using his name. If you want your reader to envision a pine forest, let them know that it is a pine forest, not just a forest, lest they imagine oaks or palms.

Here is a sample of the opening description from my novel Nightingale (available as an enhanced novel on the iPad, complete with its own illustrations, soundtrack, animations, and author interviews). I didn’t try to use all of the tips listed above, just enough to bring the scene to life. Never make yourself a slave to all good advice:

Sommer Bastian had fled her safe house in North Carolina, and now nowhere was safe.

She raced through a thick forest, gasping in the humid air. Sweat drenched her, crawling down her forehead, stinging her eyes. Dogs barked a quarter mile behind, the deep-voices of mastiffs. Her vision reeled from fatigue, and she struggled to make out a path in the shadows.

Fireflies rose from the grass ahead, lugging their burden of light, lanterns in shades of emerald and citrine that pushed back against the gathering night. Eighty thousand stars wheeled through otherwise empty heavens. Without even a sliver of moon or the glow of a remote village, the stars did not shine so much as throb.

She could run no faster. With every stride, Sommer stretched her legs to the full. A mastiff keened, not far back now. It was almost upon her.

Her pursuers were faster than any human, and stronger than she. At nineteen, Sommer was in the prime of her life, but that made no difference. A desperate plan was taking form in her mind.

The dogs were trained to kill. But she knew that even a trained dog can’t attack someone who surrenders. Nature won’t allow it. And when a dog surrenders completely, it does so by offering its throat.

That would be her last resort—to lie on her back and give her throat to these killers, so that she could draw them in close.

She raced for her life. To her right, a buck snorted in the darkness and bounded away, invisible in the night. She hoped that its pounding would attract the dogs, and they did fall silent in confusion, but soon snarled and doubled their speed.

The brush grew thick ahead—blackberries and morning glory crisscrossing the deer trail. She heard dogs lunging behind her; one barked. They were nearly on her.

Sommer’s foot caught on something hard—a tough tree root—and she went sprawling. A dog growled and leapt. Sommer rolled to her back and arched her neck, offering her throat.

Three dogs quickly surrounded her, ominous black shadows that growled and barked, baring their fangs, sharp splinters of white. They were huge, these mastiffs, with spiked collars at their throats, and leather masks over their faces. Their hooded eyes seemed to be empty sockets in their skulls.

They bounded back and forth in their excitement, shadowy dancers, searching for an excuse to kill.

I can still get away, Sommer thought, raising a hand to the air, as if to block her throat. By instinct she extended her sizraels—oblong suction cups that now began to surface near the tip of each thumb and finger. Each finger held one, an oval callus that kept stretching, growing.

Though she wasn’t touching any of the dogs, at ten feet they were close enough for her to attack.

She reached out with her mind, tried to calm herself as she focused, and electricity crackled at the tips of her fingers. Tiny blue lights blossomed and floated in the air near her fingers like dandelion down. The lights were soft and pulsing, no brighter than the static raised when she stroked a silk sheet in the hours before a summer storm.

She entered the mastiffs’ minds and began to search. They were supposed to hold her until the hunters came, maul her if she tried to escape. Their masters had trained the dogs well.

But a dog’s memories were not like human memories, thick and substantial.

Sommer drew all of the memories to the surface—hundreds of hours of training, all bundled into a tangle—and snapped them, as if passing her hand through a spider’s web.

Immediately all three mastiffs began to look around nervously. One lay down at her feet and whimpered, as if afraid she might be angry.

“Good dogs,” Sommer whispered, tears of relief rising to her eyes. “Good!” She rolled to her knees, felt her stomach muscles bunch and quaver. She prepared to run.

“Where do you think you’re going?” a deep voice asked.

There are more dangerous things than mastiffs, Sommer knew. Of all the creatures in the world, the man who spoke now was at the top of the list.

Grand Prize Winner of the Hollywood Book Festival, placed first in all genres, all categories.

Winner of the 2012 International Book Award for Best Young Adult Novel of the Year!

Finalist in the Global Ebook Awards.

Some people sing at night to drive back the darkness. Others sing to summon it. . . .

Bron Jones was abandoned at birth. Thrown into foster care, he was rejected by one family after another, until he met Olivia, a gifted and devoted high-school teacher who recognized him for what he really was--what her people call a "nightingale."

But Bron isn't ready to learn the truth. There are secrets that have been hidden from mankind for hundreds of thousands of years, secrets that should remain hidden. Some things are too dangerous to know. Bron's secret may be the most dangerous of all.

In his remarkable young adult fantasy debut, David Farland shows why critics have called his work "compelling," "engrossing," "powerful," "profound," and "ultimately life-changing."

"Superb worldbuilding, strong characters, and Dave's characteristic excellent prose. --Brandon Sanderson, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author
Nightingale Website

David's Website

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Bringing Scenes to Life: Guest Post + release