Our perception of the world, of everything we encounter, is filtered through the five main senses: sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell. Without these senses, we wouldn’t be able to make sense of our environment. Similarly, if you neglect to include the sensory experience in your writing, people won’t be able to make sense of your words.
Trying to capture life in mere words is a little like trying to mold a hotel out of water. Impossible at first, but with a little work and ingenuity it becomes a reality. If you’ve ever heard of the Hôtel de Glace in Quebec City, you know what I’m talking about.
The craft of descriptive writing is like any aspect of writing…it takes effort and practice. A great place to start is to take one simple aspect of the world (a flower, pet, painting) and go from there. Start small and work your way up to more complex scenes and objects. If you’re a fan of poetry, you’ve viewed firsthand how this is best done. Short, simple sentences dripping with descriptions of the world; concise summaries of perception that bring the poet’s ideas to life. Try to work that type of description into your own writing, and before you know it, the stories will become tangible, literally leaping off the pages. Your stories coming to life…what every author strives to achieve.
So, while you’re practicing transforming the world into word, here are a few things to keep in mind that will help make the seemingly impossible, possible.
Experience the World…Again
It’s difficult to describe something that you’ve never seen. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers often encounter this dilemma. But, what about the every day objects and experiences that constantly surround us? With repetitive exposure, we become ignorant of the beauty around us, too busy staring down at our cell phones or the telly, taking the world for granted. We fail to capture in our writing the intricate details as we view our environment through numb eyes. It then becomes a struggle to write about even the most common of things.
How do you get past this type of ignorance? Go back out into the world, paying attention to all of your senses, and reexperience what you’re trying to write about. For instance, if you are writing about a sunset, trying to capture the nuances of the layered light, the kaleidoscope of colours, the quiet brilliance into words, go out and watch a sunset with paper and pen in hand, and transcribe all that you witness using your five senses as your guide.
Pretend as if you are a child again, experiencing the world for the first time. Pay extra attention to the tiniest of details…the colours, the scents drifting on the breeze, the sounds you hear in the distance. Are you sitting on the grass? What does the texture of the grass feel like? Use your senses to fully experience that sunset, and you will find it easier to put that experience into writing.
What if you’re writing about something you can’t witness firsthand? Studying a picture can have a similar effect, although a few senses will be neglected. Imagination and some research will need to come into play. For example, you might be writing a scene that takes place in Paris, France, but lack the funds to travel there. A picture might have to do the trick in this circumstance. And based on a little research and imagination you can fill in the sounds and smells that go hand in hand with Paris.
Some of the most beautifully described perceptions and experiences are found in various works of poetry. Study the word choices, how so much detail is crammed into so few words. Words used not entirely as blatant description, but often having several meanings…used symbolically or metaphorically speaking. It is a talent, but one you can learn and start incorporating into your novel writing.
Famous poets admired for their descriptive writing include Emily Dickenson, Edgar Allen Poe, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, and who can leave out Shakespeare. Study these famous poets and see how they use words to evoke feelings, create scenes, and build worlds.
Practice Makes Better
As I mentioned before, like any learned technique, you need to practice it repeatedly to hone it into a useful ability that becomes second nature. Where there may not be a perfect way to describe the world, you can definitely improve at it.
Take snippets of your own writing and go through it sentence by sentence, scene by scene, and bring it to life through descriptive word. Add in textured elements that make the scenes more vivid.
Avoid using a passive voice and too many adverbs and adjectives, which make a sentence less punchy. Instead use the best verb to describe the scene, so there isn’t a need for being verbose.
For instance, in the sentence, “He said comfortingly,” you could instead write, “He consoled.” A simple example, but you get the point.
Perception of POV
When writing fiction, we are not only describing the world or a scene, but we are describing it through someone else’s eyes…your character’s point of view. Your character’s morals, level of intelligence, age, personality, limitations, and opinions come across through how they describe the world around them. So, through using descriptive writing, you are also building up your character, adding depth, so the reader can get a better sense of how they perceive the world and what they are going through.
One of my favourite book series…Clan of the Cave Bear…is a prime example. At the age of five, a human child is found and raised by Neanderthals. During the early years, the writing portrays the limited intelligence and vocabulary of the five year old. As she gets older, her perceptions change as she experiences the world through the eyes of an adult. If you haven’t read this series, I strongly recommend it, especially if you want to see the dramatic usage of description, as the author Jean Auel is one of the best at the craft.
Use a Thesaurus
The exact words to describe what you’re seeing don’t always pop into your mind when you need them. You know that feeling, when the word is dancing around the tip of your tongue but just won’t come to mind, becoming increasingly elusive the harder you try like a cat chasing a laser pointer. Next time this happens, check a thesaurus to find the right word you’re looking for. Also, checking a dictionary to ensure you’re using a word correctly is imperative to clean writing. An incorrectly used word can ruin a scene.
Make Sure the Scene Calls for Description
Some descriptions are long and laboured, while others are short and to the point.
When you’re writing an action or fight scene, you don’t want to stop and describe in detail what the room looks like, or what the characters are wearing. Otherwise, you lose the momentum of the scene. In these situations, the descriptions will focus more on the action, with shorter, punchier sentences providing enough detail to show what’s happening…how the setting is getting destroyed, the characters injured, and so on. So you don’t stop using description in this type of scenario, but use it differently, gearing it toward the action.
Alternately, when opening up a scene, you may want to have a longer, more detailed description so the reader can picture the setting of your story. Just try to avoid excessive wording. Too much description can quickly become boring if it pulls away from the story at hand. Take the bestselling novel by Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch, where the use of description is taken to a whole other level. As an author, I thoroughly enjoyed the pages of description, reveling in her talent for detail, my senses and emotions on overdrive. But my friend grew weary of the verbose text, shelving it after the first few chapters. “Too boring,” she stated. To each his own, I guess, but it further underlines the importance of not going overboard when it comes to description. The right words will go a long way.
Every sentence in your story should have a purpose. Whether it’s to describe a character, evoke an emotion, foreshadow an event, build your setting, or create tension, your description should have specific relevance, or be chopped out during your editing phase.
Don’t just include descriptive sentences for the act of writing description. It will cause the story to be stilted, the flow blocked like a fallen tree across a shallow river. Take the time to go through each sentence and decide whether it adds to the story or not. If you can cut out the sentence and it doesn’t effect your story, you’re probably better off without it.
If you’re still in need of inspiration or clarification on the topic of description, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Art of Description: World into Word by Mark Doty. It’s a small book, but really drives home the importance of why and how to use description in your literary works.
Enjoy practicing the art of writing description! If you’re not already an expert, you will be in no time!
And don’t forget to keep reading!
💋 Lanie Mores