‘Word painting’ is a term I’ve borrowed from the title of a book by Rebecca
McClanahan. It’s such a rich, evocative term – and one I wish I’d thought of myself and the book is a great resource for all writers with regards to making the most of using description.
They say a picture paints a thousand words but as good writers, we aspire to use fewer words to paint a picture. Everyone who puts pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard writes description. It can’t be avoided. Whether fiction or non-fiction, a story or a boring financial report, it all involves describing something.
Why do we need to go to the extra trouble and effort when our scintillating dialogue and riveting plot may well be enough to carry our story?
It’s because we don’t just want to tell our readers a story. We want them to live it. Sure, simply telling them things will do the job, but showing them in a way that engages emotions and senses will make their time with your story more fulfilling (and hopefully leave them wanting more of the same.)
Description is the hardest working element of our stories. It not only tells us how something looks, it can show so much about the place or time, the characters and their emotions. Description isn’t something that is solely visual, it can also convey mood, tone, memory – all aspects which add richness and depth to the story.
Ok, so we’re going to embellish our work with unique and compelling description, but where do we put it?
Description isn’t merely decoration. It can’t be hung on every sentence, that’s like overloading a Xmas tree until all you see is the fancy stuff. Like everything else in your story, every word needs to count, to serve the story. It should blend seamlessly into your story, not be a signpost saying ‘this is so you understand this particular aspect of the character, setting, plot’ aka the dreaded ‘info dump’. Don’t waste description where it’s not needed. Don’t say it was a blue vase if the color is irrelevant.
Use detail where it’s significant, where it serves a purpose :
‘It was a strong and handsome face with eyes that surprised her with their intense colour. Blue. Not baby blue, or
dark blue, but the colour of her lapis lazuli crystals.’
This isn’t just a description of the hero’s eyes, it gives us an insight into the heroine’s personality – that she thinks in terms of crystals we could assume that she’s ‘new age’. The reader can form perceptions of how she may think and act. As well as giving a concrete detail about the hero, it gives an indication about the heroine as well.
Similarly the items on a credit card statement or shopping list can build a picture of someone’s character – or the mere fact that they have a ‘to do’ list.
Effective description doesn’t have to be complex or long. It should play beneath the storyline like subliminal music.
Be precise and relevant in your details. If describing something that is ‘white’, what (from the POV of the person observing the white) would they see? Alabaster? Milk? Bloodless? Cloud? What about them, their situation, would colour (no pun intended) their perception of white?
Be aware of the sound of your words and the impact that can carry. For example, short, long, abrupt, heavy, sad, light, sharp etc. One word of the right tone can often say more than a sentence.
Think of description like expensive jewellery. Understand its quality, appreciate its value and know how to use it to its best effect.
Andra Ashe’s recently released, erotic romance, ‘The Biker and the
Ballerina’, is available from Jupiter Gardens, follow the link below.