I’m working on ways to improve the variety and colourfulness of my descriptive prose. It seems so easy when you read someone’s work and the colours and pictures dance in your mind, but when I sit to write I get stuck back with basic descriptions. Any suggestions on how to help that doesn’t involve devouring a dictionary or flipping through a thesaurus for every descriptive word I write?
A possible way to approach this is to think about the emotions of the viewpoint character – the state they’re in when they approach whatever they’re seeing and the reaction they have to what it is they’re seeing. How does it make them feel? What does it remind them of? That can lead you toward metaphors that aren’t just “X like Y” for their own sake, but are specific to your story.
(You can also approach it with the “think about the emotion you want in the reader,” which is advice I’ve seen, but I think it’s better to think about it from the character’s standpoint. Ideally the reader should be feeling the same thing.)
Start with your favorite room. Anywhere in the world. Doesn’t have to be your own home, but it could be.
Describe it to me using five paragraphs
Now in three.
Now in a single paragraph.
Now in three lines.
Now in one line.
Not only is this a great writing exercise (and yes, you start over each time), but you do it a few times until you come to realize how best you can distill your observations down without sacrificing the essence.
Do this once a week for a few weeks. Do a cold read, later on. Feel free to edit, rewrite, etc. Keep those pages, and revisit them, now and then. Learn from your own improvements, and apply them.
If you don’t care to do it about your favorite room, pick a favorite place, a favorite object, a favorite something. Something you enjoy writing about, and distilling, over and over again.
That sounds like a really neat exercise.
I second this method. What you need to do, is not think about describing the thing as it is. It’s more the colouring, rather than the lines. You want to show us the things that fit the theme your trying to convey. Don’t tell me what the thing is - tell me what it can be seen as.
Take this for example.
“The sun rose, colouring the sky in the light of the new day.”
Yes, it tells me what’s going on, but if you ask me, I’m thinking - so what? There’s no skill in language going on here, it’s a line that is just some words - it’s that generic. So, show me something we all know in a new way. That’s the challenge.
“Now, when dawn once again stirred her rosy cheeks across the wine-dark sea…”
Loosely paraphrasing from Richard Lattimore’s Translation of the Odyssey, this sort of description is to me, the best example that conveys what we’re trying to do here. Unpacking the sentence, it uses personification, and imagery that equates the light of dawn with the blush of a woman’s cheeks. It conveys the dawn yes, but it does more, it tells us the sun is rising, but in a new way.
Another example of how you show something familiar, but in a new way, is in Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro.
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.”
Again, we’re not being simply told, but shown something new. The whole point is, we’re not just reaching for the thesaurus in order to get new words - a different word does nothing, unless you use them to construct a different image. Think abstractly, don’t write what is, but what its like. What has an association with what your writing? Add tone.
Hopefully that made some sense.
I love that last writing exercise, I’ll have to try it.
Also think in terms of verbs and nouns, rather than adjectives and adverbs. Avoid 'It was," ‘she was’ ‘the room was’ and pick specific images, working actively, to find those pictures you’re looking for.
“The room was cluttered. They didn’t clean often, and it smelled.”
“Three half empty coffee cups crowded the desk, next to a column of unopened bills. Unfolded laundry–clean, or dirty? sprawled across the couch like a camp of limp, colorful hobos, and cracker crumbs trailed off the sticky table to the carpet. Under it all drifted an aroma of week-old wine and rotting lettuce, mixing with the half-hearted, intermittent spritz of lemon air freshener from the bathroom.”
And of course, ideally, you’ll have a character moving through the setting and coloring it with their own emotions and reactions. XD
We actually did this a lot in middle school. I believe the term is ‘Telling Sentences’ vs ‘Showing Paragraphs’. Another challenge along those lines is to take a sentence and describe it in a way that uses none of the major points in the original sentence. So in the case of “The room was cluttered. They didn’t clean often, and it smelled.”
You wouldn’t be able to use room, cluttered, clean, or smelled. Through your descriptive paragraph, the reader would have to be able to come to those conclusions on their own.
One exercise I’ve enjoyed is describing a color to someone who’s been blind all their lives. It forces you to think of the other four senses and past experiences. So for pink, you might describe the giggles of little girls, or the scent of flowers. I wrote an entire paragraph for it once describing the entire (albeit generic) cycle, from the smell of fresh paint and the stirrings of a swollen belly to a baby cooing all the way up to the sound of wedding bells and walking her down the aisle to the joyful tears on your cheeks as you learn you’re going to be a grandparent. For blue, you might keep it as simple as the scent of salt in the air and the sound of waves crashing against a shore, or the feeling of calmness when all feels right and peaceful in the world, or the big open sky.
One thing I’ve found is to describe things with a theme in mind. For example, Joe Hill’s book NOS4A2: the entire book pivoted around a very general theme of Christmas. Descriptions tended towards creepy, unsettling aspects of that theme, but it held to it. (Cottonwood seeds billowing into drifts, the smell of stale gingerbread and burning pine, the discordant sounds of “Jingle Bells” playing in the background, etc.) Another fantastic example is Name of the Wind, by Pat Rothfuss. Kvothe describes much of his world as it relates to music–something extremely important to the narrator/character. The wind doesn’t just moan; it sings and hums with chords, melodies, refrains, etc. It’s a form of description so subtle that it’s often not noticed unless directly pointed out.
Yet it is a vital part of description, and it tends to help tie a tale together in ways a general theme may not. Do not merely describe what your character sees; describe it the way they would describe it.
A very good point in keeping to the character’s perspective. It really gives the reader that much more of a sense of who the character is, too, and allows them to empathize with far more ease.
Sometimes the best description is none. If it’s not necessary to plot or characterization, then you can skip it.
I can second this. One of my favorite examples of this, for the craft of writing, is the way Haymish is physically described in the Hunger Games first book.
Seriously. Go through that book again. There is nothing about him that is described; we form the mental picture through his actions and dialogue.
If you can pull that off, do it.
Isn’t that usually because the writer wants to let the reader identify with/idolize the character in his imagination the way he/she wants?
Edward from Twilight isn’t described either, if I remember correctly.
Anything that the writer doesn’t explicitly describe, the reader will picture however they want to picture it. So, if the details of something don’t matter to the story or character, then there’s no need to bother describing them. The reader will do it for you.
That honestly always bothered me as a reader. For so long I’ve read books where I’ll start to imagine something or someone a certain way, only for a description later on to prove me wrong. Now, when something or someone isn’t described and is in the book for more than a few sentences, there’s like this black void where the thing or person should be. It takes me out of the story whenever that thing or person is involved. The only book that did this in such a way that didn’t ruin the story for me was The Great Gatsby.
And there is Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”. During his lifetime, Kafka fought with his publishers who wanted to illustrate the story and show Samsa as a giant cockroach. Kafka insisted that Samsa be described only as a giant insect, to let each reader envision Samsa as the most revolting insect to him or her. (As soon as Kafka died, everyone illustrated Samsa as a giant cockroach.)