Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Word Painting in Fiction

I’m a minimalist when it comes to description. My journalism training taught me brevity, so I always look for extraneous words to cut. Haven’t we all been in a hundred different kitchens? If I write “galley kitchen” or “country kitchen,” does that draw a picture in your mind? That’s all I need to imagine the perfect kitchen for the scene, but it’s not enough for most fiction. We’ve got to dig deeper and paint the scene with our words.

Here’s the first draft from one of my Works in Progress:

Arriving for work at The Hot Tamale, a restaurant on San Antonio’s Famous River Walk, April tried to ignore her problems and do her job. She greeted customers with a smile and took their orders. She sashayed between the crowded tables, careful of the heavy tray she carried filled with tamales, enchiladas, refried beans and rice.

I pulled a good bit of my hair out, but I stayed in my writing chair until I produced this revised version:

April hustled out the door to her job at The Hot Tamale, a restaurant located on San Antonio’s scenic River Walk—three miles of riverfront, winding under the bridges and busy streets of the downtown.

The colored lights and festival atmosphere had charmed April when she’d first arrived. She loved strolling among the cafés, boutiques, street vendors, and hotels that lined the shallow, murky water. Anonymous in the crowd of tourists, Latinos, and cowboys, who flooded the riverbanks seeking entertainment. No one called her name. No one needed more than she had to give. She was free!

But the sultry afternoon heat drove her into one of the air-conditioned restaurants. In the evenings, she sipped margaritas and sat beneath one of the bright umbrellas at tiny, wrought-iron tables next to the river, listening to Mariachis—musicians wearing traditional black, short jackets and tight pants. The musicians filled the air with the rich sounds of their vihuelas, or round-backed guitars, along with their sweet violins and brilliant trumpets.

One night, April rode in one of the guided, flat-bottomed boats, meandering among the buildings and ancient cypress trees. From her seat, she watched an inebriated customer lose his footing and fall in the San Antonio River.

Now that she worked on the River Walk night after night, the place had lost its allure. Tonight, the carnival atmosphere wearied her. April tied a red apron around her waist and tried to ignore her problems. Mindful of tips, she took her customers’ orders with a smile, then sashayed between the crowded tables, careful of the heavy tray she carried filled with tamales, enchiladas, refried beans and rice as scents of chili peppers, spicy meat, and garlic wafted in the air.

Join me in digging deep to paint the best fiction we can.

~Roxanne Sherwood~

1 comment:

Lisa Jordan said...

I remember your original scene with April. In your revision, the atmosphere becomes a character and breathes life into the story. For a minimalist, you still did a great job of writing a tight description.