Wednesday, December 29, 2010

That Extra Zing

When studying the phenomenal world-building of JK Rowling, I like to break her craft apart into three sets: The Wide Angle Lens, the Zoom Lens, and That Extra Zing.

In building your set, not only do you want your reader to experience a fully alive, intriguing world in wideness and detail, but you want some of those details to sizzle with extra flavorful zing.

For examples of the Zing, I'd like to share two of my favorite details from JKR's worldbuilding which I think go beyond the ordinary to add an additional, delightful touch.  And better yet, they both happen to come from Christmas!  (Hey! It's still the holidays.  My tree's still up.  The kids are still out of school! :-)

The Hogwarts staff, demonstrating a continued desire to impress the visitors from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang, seemed determined to show the castle at its best this Christmas. When the decorations went up, Harry noticed that they were the most stunning he had yet seen inside the school. Everlasting icicles had been attached to the banisters of the marble staircase; the usual twelve Christmas trees in the Great Hall were bedecked with everything from luminous holly berries to real, hooting, golden owls, and the suits of armor had all been bewitched to sing carols whenever anyone passed them. It was quite something to hear "O Come, All Ye Faithful" sung by an empty helmet that only knew half the words. Several times, Filch the caretaker had to extract Peeves from inside the armor, where he had taken to hiding, filling in the gaps in the songs with lyrics of his own invention, all of which were very rude.
(p. 395, GoF)

Even though this is a lump of description, it’s kept from being boring by the imaginative, unusual detail, and the action within. That last bit, about Peeves filling in rude lyrics, to me is quite witty and adds the extra zing. JKR could easily have stopped with the everlasting icicles, the hooting, golden owls, and the singing suits of armor. That alone would have provided the whimsical Christmas feel she was after. But in taking it that extra level--the Peeves factor--she truly brings the whole setting to magical life...and makes it loads of fun.

One of my favorite descriptions on steroids, which I also listed in my post on favorite tidbits from Harry Potter, was the Christmas tree gnome topping the Weasley tree in HBP.

Stupefied, painted gold, stuffed into a miniature tutu and with small wings glued to its back, it glowered down at them all, the ugliest angel Harry had ever seen, with a large bald head like a potato and rather hairy feet.
(p. 309, HBP Bloomsbury)

Those hairy feet add the zing to an already fully-imaginative description. I would love to be able to come up with something so clever and amusing with so few words.

As writers, we build a world in whatever story we write, even if that world is the contemporary one most readers inhabit.  Your reader still doesn't know YOUR particular setting.  How you choose to describe that world, and what elements you choose to highlight, will greatly affect the feel and perception of your story by the reader.  Make sure that you've thought your world through in complete detail (even if it is not all given on the page).  Then, include these delightful, tasty nougats to help your reader experience your story as a participant and not merely an observer.

A note of caution on zinging -- a little goes a long way.  With ever-decreasing word counts, we have to be very careful to spend words only where important.  Therefore, make sure any extra details you add to your descriptions are truly wonderful AND that they add to your story significantly...preferably in more ways than one!

What nuance can you add to your perfectly good description to give it that extra sparkle? Can you share one you're particularly proud of?

Gnome picture credit.