Friday, August 18, 2017

Paint a Picture with Words by Elizabeth Alsobrooks

Description is the foundation of a vivid story, the kind that plays like a movie in the reader’s head. Visual description is more important than ever as a staple in a fiction writer’s toolbox. In this modern media day of iphones, internet and music videos, even the readers’ perceptions and expectations are changing. Teachers complain that students don’t have any creativity or imagination any more. They don’t play make believe games. They play video games. They have become so inundated and even dependent upon visual media it’s difficult to interest them in fiction reading, a form of entertainment that isn’t as immediate. It’s not enough to hook the reader’s attention in the beginning. Ageless classics are written with well-drawn characters, realistic storylines and vivid descriptions. Today’s writers, more than ever, need to create evocative scenes with well-paced storylines that elicit visceral responses from their readers, drawing them eagerly forward through a story that however fanciful “feels” realistic.  

Creating a story does require imagination, so the first thing you must do to describe a person, place or thing well is to visualize it. Many writers choose magazine pictures or stock photos to help them better describe settings or characters. You have to begin with an impression, getting a feel for what you are about to describe. Writers are probably among the most observant groups of people in the world, filling their imaginations with visuals and human behavior.

Once a writer has the rough draft version of what they wish to describe, it’s necessary to choose just the right words to convey both a correct and enhanced image. A good describer doesn’t make the mistake of using just their computer’s synonym or thesaurus tool to find more interesting, as in less common, words to replace what they’ve already written. Beginning writers who implement these tools inadequately often end up using the wrong words, as in incorrect word use, which renders the description confusing rather than giving it clarity and creating a visual image in the reader’s mind. One of the handiest tools in a writer’s toolbox, even a seasoned writer who wants to up the voltage of their creative juices, is a describer’s dictionary. These handy references include samples of words as well as phrases to better describe faces, expressions, body types and individual behaviors, such as gestures or walking habits. They go into detail about such seemingly simple things as sizes, shapes, colors, landscapes and objects, as well as more complex details such as skin tone, complexion or the look in someone’s eyes.

With the rough draft fleshed out the writer has created a “real life” image for the readers. Now, it’s important to trim the fat. Take out any unnecessary words or over-the-top phrases and what’s left is a much more interesting piece, one that will draw the readers in and keep their attention. Use these three steps, 1) get the description down on paper, 2) make the description more vivid with interesting phrases and vibrant details, and 3) tighten the writing, removing redundant or verbose words or phrases, and the result will be much better writing, which means much better reading.

Here are a couple examples. You decide which ones are the better reading.

He was a mean and miserly man. Or: "Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as a flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster." - Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol"

It was a dark and stormy night. Or: The impending was inevitable and I could sense it nearing. Thunder rumbled in the distance and a bolt of lightning cracked the midnight blue sky into two. Jagged flashes of pure light cast a glow against the monochromatic background. For the past week, I lay in bed fervently hoping I'd wake up to the gentle patter of rain on my windowpane, an escape from the scorching heat; and now, here it was, cascading in diagonal sheets in its full glory. There was a certain rhythm to the downpour that I caught amidst the wind unleashing a torrent of its own. The rain exhibited no sign to cease, the inception of the storm had only just arrived.-Sachi’s published descriptions

Now you can't make every description detailed, or carry both landscape and motivation within a character's description at every turn. Too much of a good thing can also bore your readers. So like a great love scene, writers must learn to use pacing effectively, knowing that detailed descriptions slow down the pace and are sometimes especially effective after a violent or fast-paced emotional scene. Whenever and wherever a writer uses description though, it has to be a well-worn tool in their toolbox.


Diane Burton said...

Good post, Elizabeth. It's important to give the reader enough description to form a picture of the character or setting. But not too much. We want readers to use their imagination to fill in the rest. One of the things I'm having fun with this summer is playing pretend with my 2-year-old granddaughter. Her older (ages 7.5 & 10) helped her build a "spaceship" out of a box and a helmet out of another box.

CJ Burright said...

Great post, Elizabeth! I use my need for visuals as my excuse to scroll through Pinterest too much. :)

Maureen said...

Great post!