EGWG Writing Class # 7
Without words, without writing, and without books there would be no history, there could be no concept of humanity. Herman Hesse
The purpose of descriptive writing is to inspire the imagination. How do you do that? Pay attention to detail? Refine your perceptions? Use interesting words, not bigger words, but words that exactly describe the details? Yes, all of that.
Descriptive writing isn’t Purple Prose, Beige Prose, Laundry Lists, or Blue Language.
The phrase, purple prose comes from the Roman poet Horace in 19 BCE. In his poem, Ars Poetica, he warned his readers to stay away from “flashy purple patches” of writing. The idea of purple prose stuck, and his warning has continued for over two thousand years.
You could take five paragraphs to describe how messy a character’s apartment is. Or you could call it a “rotting pig sty.”
The problem with purple prose is that it gets in the way of what you’re trying to say. It interrupts the flow of your story and says, “Look at me! See all the fancy words I can use?” (Excerpt from Writersblueprint.com)
Purple prose is description using exaggerated sentiments or flowery images. It is characterized by strings of multisyllabic words, run-on sentences, and large blocks of text that slow down the pace. Although it was commonly used in the past, today, it is frowned upon as boring.
“In purple prose, skin is always creamy, eyelashes always glistening, heroes always brooding, and sunrises always magical. Purple prose also features an abundance of metaphors and figurative language, long sentences, and abstractions.” (Excerpt from The Thought Co.)
Just as an artist can ruin a painting by layering on too much paint, so too can an author ruin a scene by description that goes on and on and on. When describing something, let’s say your character is setting down a cup; it’s how the cup is set down, not the description of the cup.
“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” – Elements of Style.
Beige prose is description so brief it’s non-visual. It is simple, blunt, and to the point. It lacks descriptors and doesn’t offer the reader a way into the story. Much of Ernest Hemingway’s writing is now considered beige.
While beige prose is clear and effective, it’s important to note that it can inhibit the flow of the story. Because of its brief nature, beige prose rarely allows any clauses, similes, or metaphors. Adding figures of speech to a sentence can enhance the readability of the work and maintain the flow and interest of the reader. As with purple prose, it’s important to remember that moderation is key.
Short sentences and simple direct prose speeds up the pace and works great for action and fast moving scenes. But, not all scenes are full of action. That’s where descriptive writing is needed. That’s why alternating sentence length is advised.
Laundry lists include highly detailed descriptions. An example would be a living room in a vacation cabin where every piece of furniture, the pillows, rugs, fireplace, lamps, and every other item in the room is described. Rather, say the interior was cozy and just as rustic as the exterior. Save the details for when they’re needed.
To combat laundry lists, use characterizations. A type of style will describe something or someone. A room could be early American, or Japanese-modern. Instead of detailing the clothes a secondary character might wear, say she bought her clothes at the local vintage store, or in a scene, she looked like a 1920s flapper. The dress shimmered with dangling beads, and the feather flower in her hair was the perfect touch. Another method is to choose the most important feature and describe it. Shorter descriptions give the readers the visual cues they need without going into a long list.
Sketched-in descriptions tend to stir the reader’s imaginations. Paragraphs full of detail damp it down. Why? Readers are good at using their imaginations to build a picture while reading. If there is a laundry list of one detail after another, the reader loses interest. Let description come slowly and weave the pieces into the character’s actions.
Blue language is cursing, obscenity, and profanity. Cursing is usually used in dialogue, and you need to be careful not to overdo it.
If you have a hard-case in your story, he or she might curse more than usual. The thing to consider is that vulgar language draws attention to itself. That means the reader loses his focus on the story. Characters must be believable and not spend their time cursing a blue streak just because you like to shock people. Plus, characters who drop an F-bomb in every section of their dialogue are usually unlikable.
The point is, don’t let the overuse of cursing steal the reader’s focus away from the story. If you have a character down on his luck or angry at someone, make the reader sympathize with the character instead of focusing on a foul-mouthed tirade at an empty refrigerator or at someone he’s angry at.
If you use foul language because the character’s character calls for it, don’t overdo it. And if you have several characters swearing, make sure they use different words. More than two men all using the same curse phrase isn’t realistic.
Humans are visual creatures. That is why we enjoy theater, movies, and television. Visualization holds true when reading. Children’s books usually have colorful pictures, to help them understand the words. When writing prose or poetry, a writer creates a mental picture using sensory details. That gives the reader the ability to step out of reality and into the character’s shoes to experience the scene. You want them to be gripped by the same emotions as the POV character.
Don’t be fooled; writing great descriptions is hard. It shouldn’t be showy with spangles and glittery bling, but it can’t be plain vanilla or somber. (Unless that’s the mood you’re trying to write.) Take care because it is often hard to decide when enough description is enough and not too much.
An example: The intense cold inside the cave Althea Bishop had found shelter in wasn’t any warmer than the frozen world outside. She lay in her wolf form, coiled into a tight circle with her tail covering her nose and ears. Althea shivered as she tried to conserve what little body heat she had left. Her paws throbbed and her body ached. The wind moaned and howled outside the tiny cavity, drowning out all other sounds, including those of the wolves who were tracking her. (Excerpt from P.L. Clark’s Chasing the Omega.)
Was that enough, or too much? Could you feel the cold? Have you ever read a story where you catch yourself holding your breath in a tense moment? That’s great descriptive imagery. That should be your goal.
Writing Imagery: The Basics
Verbal imagery involves the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, and that sixth sense where the character becomes uneasy, has a premonition of danger, or senses someone is watching them.
Don’t use all the senses in the same scene. You can, but you’re apt to end up with a laundry list, and that’s just tedious to read. Instead, picture the scene in your head and choose the most important aspect(s) to describe. That is visual writing, and you can heighten the scene by inserting memorable details.
If your scene is a barn or house burning, what is the character experiencing with his senses? Your character will hear the sizzle of the moisture in the wood cooking off and the pitch snapping and popping. Is he seeing the wood catch fire and flames licking up the walls like cats lapping spilled milk off the floor? When the character gets too close to the fire, he’ll feel the heat and his skin will begin stinging like the worst sunburn he’s ever had. Smoke will clog his nose and inhibit his breathing. There might be chemicals burning, and they’ll taste acrid on his tongue and scorch the inside of his nose.
Take care not to overuse the senses. I used all five senses in the above paragraph on purpose. That would have been too much to write in a scene unless it was spread out.
Use quality over quantity. A few words in a sentence can do as much to involve a reader as a paragraph. Although there will be times when a longer paragraph is called for, seek the balance between enough or too much and don’t go overboard. Does the reader need a detailed description of a building, or what another character is wearing in minute detail? Pick one or two things that will give you the best sensory image for each scene and use the one that’s the most important.
The Five Senses
The sensory details should be vivid, concrete, and sensory-packed. Vague or commonly used words won’t put the reader into the scene.
Vary your sentence structure. Try to avoid the same subject-verb pattern in all sentences. An example would be: The hall was empty. She ran toward the classroom. She entered right after the bell rang. Varying the structure breaks the monotonous tone. Racing down the hall, she skidded into the classroom, breathless, just as the bell clanged above her.
Again. Close your eyes and envision each scene before you write it. What is the most important detail(s) for the reader to know? Remember, keep your words vivid. Show the reader how the character sees things from his POV.
Visual imagery – Sight
When you see something, you see all of it, the interesting and the ho-hum. It’s up to you to decide what the mood or atmosphere of the scene is. What does the reader need to know? Don’t waste words trying to make a description interesting. We each have a vast array of images in our brains, and we’re used to similes and metaphors like “She gave him a Mona Lisa smile.” But, keep similes and metaphors unique and not cliché. “She gave him a smile that left him guessing.”
As an exercise, take time to study what you see as you go throughout the day. Notice the structure, colors, variations, sizes, and shapes of what pricks your interest. Pick out the relevant details. Think about how you’d write a vivid description about them.
Auditory imagery – Hearing
Hearing is used to explain ideas, things, and actions using sounds. Again, humans have a great capacity for imagining sounds when certain words are used.
For example: in The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe wrote … While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping. As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
Tapping and rapping are auditory imagery words. This type of imagery is common in poetry and should be just as common in descriptive imagery.
Use the words targeting the sense of hearing and they will evoke a sensory experience and help the readers perceive the sounds of a scene.
Onomatopoeia ( o-na-mata-pea-a) is the term for words that sound like the action they describe: Crash! Bang! Boom! Marvel comics are full of them. Words like these can be used without sounding like Batman if you use them with care. John was hopeless at golf, but he loved the good thwack of the driver sending the ball on its misguided way. Another, Emily loved the sound of her son’s pony clip-clopping down the lane.
Alliteration is the repetition of similar sounds, like the “s” sounds in this sentence. It’s used mostly in poetry, but used sparingly and in the right places, it can enhance prose just as much. Notice the “b” sounds in this. So, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (Excerpt from The Great Gatsby.)
Tactile Imagery – Touch
How something feels against a character’s skin, tongue, feet, or other parts of their body is important. The softness of a kitten’s fur, the cold from holding an ice cube, or a wintery wind against one’s face, touch is important and has many variables. Just imagine hopping barefoot across the hot asphalt on a summer’s day, or the grit of sand in places sand isn’t supposed to be. Warm, cold, soft, hard, wet, or dry, it’s all touch and it can be vital in creating the mood of a scene.
An example: Desert dust filled the air around her, tasting dry and gritty. A terrible, crushing weight on her hips and legs pinned her to the ground.
Olfactory imagery – Smell
Is it a sweet aroma or a nose-curling stink? Is it the yeasty smell of fresh baked bread, or reeking garbage from a dumpster, a woman wearing enticing perfume, or a drunk oozing alcohol from his pores? It might be the smell of a pine forest, a fresh mown lawn, or fresh, pollution-free air. Use whatever will help you set the mood of the scene or the story.
Old John sat on his porch and watched the boy mow the lawn. The sweet aroma of new-mown grass transported him to his teenage years when he’d been the one mowing old man McGregor’s lawn.
Judy fled down the alley. The stink of rotting garbage, urine, and God only knew what else, made her want to vomit.
Gustatory imagery – Taste
Use taste to paint vivid and unusual pictures for the reader. Taste is not only the food that hits the tongue but includes aftertaste. In the morning, after a night of drinking, a character’s mouth might taste like something died in it. There is the dry, cotton-mouth sensation when panic, fear, or shyness sets in, or the taste of chemicals when in the hospital or under medication. The possibilities are endless, but don’t overdo it.
Descriptive Writing and Figures of Speech
The best-known figures of speech are similes and metaphors. What’s the difference between them?
Similes compare one thing to another. A simile says, X is like Y or X is as something as Y.
- Her eyes were as blue as neon.
- His unshaven jaw felt like a bristle brush.
- His words were as welcome as ice on a hot day.
Metaphors are transformative, and X becomes Y.
- The man was a beast.
- She was a panther stalking her prey across the room.
- His entire life had been a roller coaster ride, and he couldn’t get off.
Similes and metaphors allow the writer to describe complicated things in just a few words. A simile is not as strong as a metaphor, but both figures of speech have their places in descriptive writing.
Four Rules for Using Similes and metaphors
- Less is more. Used well, they beautify a passage in a novel. Used too often, they look gaudy. When in doubt, strike them out.
- Avoid the commonplace. Don’t use clichés. The first time “He drank like a fish” was used, it was fresh and clever. Now, it’s just sad and ho-hum. Using original and interesting figures of speech will make your reader notice and keep reading.
- Don’t use two similes together. Using too many similes is not recommended, but using one right after another is a definite no-no. It just doesn’t work because one will usually contradict the other and make no sense.
- Don’t mix metaphors. This is the same as above. Although mixing metaphors is subtler, the message is still confused. Once you’ve introduced a metaphor, follow through. You can’t say his mind was a machine and continue with He could waltz through a crossword puzzle in minutes. That just sounds wrong. A machine waltzing? Huh?
Three other figures of speech are Personification, Hyperbole, and Allusion.
Personification is where an inanimate object is made animate or given human qualities. A few examples: Fred loved his car, but his car didn’t love Fred.
Donna was sure her computer was alive and plotting against her.
On stormy nights, the jagged rocks tore up many a fishing boat and spat them out in splinters.
Hyperbole is a deliberate exaggeration and is often used for comic effect.
An example from F.H. Burnett. He’s been spoiled ‘til salt won’t save him.
Another from Susan Caine. It would take an ice age to cool this man off.
Allusion is a brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing, etc., of historical or cultural significance. It’s generally used as a passing comment. A literary allusion might be, “I don’t approve of your quixotic ideas.”
Allusions are common in people’s daily speech. She opened Pandora’s box. He’s acting like he’s Romeo and you’re his Juliet. This ain’t no Garden of Eden.
Anything most people would know can be used as an allusion, even Star Trek. Using allusions allows a writer to put forth a complex idea or emotion with just a few words.
To repeat; the most important thing to remember is a little goes a long way. It’s not necessary to describe a character from head to toe when first introducing them. The reader needs to know the character’s name and what they are doing. Make what they’re doing interesting.
A few well-place clues throughout the story will be enough to let the reader form a picture in their minds. It may not be the same picture that is in your mind, but that’s okay.
Every character has important features, physical quirks, scars, tattoos, or something that is individual to them. Don’t compare the character to someone famous. Don’t use metaphors, or if you do, keep it to a few. Don’t use words like hot, gorgeous, or sexy. Those are vague and personal preferences. They are also telling.
Ten Tips of Physical Descriptions
- Don’t rely on or list physical attributes. It might sound like an all-points bulletin.
- Be careful of becoming mundane (boring) Her eyes were brown. vs Her eyes were the color of well-aged bourbon.
- Be careful using adjectives. They can lead to clichés. He was good-looking. She had frizzy hair. Use concrete words. A coat becomes a raincoat or a leaf falling drifts or swoops.
- Make physical descriptions specific. He wore his hair in a military buzz-cut, prickly to the touch. Or he was an aging hippy with his hair pulled back in a graying ponytail.
- Choose the details that create a specific impression. Too much or a lack of height, a mannerism, or other distinguishing characteristics.
- Use the surroundings for sensory details. Is the character somewhere he shouldn’t be, or traveling, or working on a hobby?
- Let the characters reveal themselves throughout the story. What are their likes and dislikes? What kind of car do they drive? Who are their friends? What’s in their pockets or their mailboxes?
- Description doesn’t have to be direct to be effective. What’s his or her favorite pizza? Does he play poker with his friends or play video games? Does she stop at garage sales, looking for the next great bargain? What about hobbies? Is he renovating his house? Is she taking cooking classes?
- Use motives and actions. Is he a morning person? Does he run to be running? Is he a golfer, aiming for that hole-in-one – a gardener, wanting to grow a prize-winning pumpkin – a writer, working on the next best seller?
- Be sure to sprinkle character descriptions throughout the story. Just as you don’t know a person when you first meet them, so the character needs time to reveal himself to the reader.
Body language: Micro-expressions, hand gestures, facial expressions, vocal tone and volume, and posture. Even when people don’t say what they’re thinking, most people constantly throw off clues that others understand intuitively. It’s up to the writer to put those gestures and actions on paper. The problem is how to do it.
Body language is 55% of communication and should be included in describing what characters are doing. What emotions are they feeling? What sensory detail can you include? Use them in action beats in dialogue. Characters talk, think, walk, stand still, and otherwise do something all the time, and those actions are body language.
The most famous or infamous saying in writing is show don’t tell. Sometimes that is hard to do but describing the character’s actions and movements will help.
When you are creating your character sheets (remember those from class 1?) include how your characters move and talk. This is important information for your protagonist, antagonist, secondary or confidant, and love interest characters.
Does the protagonist hurry everywhere, as if they’re going to be late, while his friend or lover strolls as if they have all day?
Is the antagonist’s tone of voice loud, aggressive, or deadly low and purposeful?
Does a character stutter when they get nervous, or start babbling?
Of course, a character can combine emotions in a single moment. They might be shocked and angry, shocked and happy, crying happy tears, or they’re so mad they cry.
Body language includes all parts of the body, including eyes, hair, eyebrows, stomach, and feet. Hair falls in the eye. Eyebrows lift or raise. Lips purse, pout, become a thin line. A stomach growls, aches, or cramps. Feet shuffle, tap, ache, smell, stamp.
Five Tips for Using Body Language
- Use body language to add depth to dialogue.
- Use it because it is a major part of communication.
- Use it to show how your character’s emotions affect their actions.
- Use it to help show and not tell.
- Use it when needed. If overused, it will slow your story down.
There are many, many books on Amazon that detail body language and how to read it. I won’t go into that, but here are a few types of body language or silent signals.
- Licking lips can signal sexual attraction, or when talking about a romantic partner. It can also indicate anxiety or stress.
- Handshakes. A firm grip can imply a person is outgoing or confident. A limp handshake signals a person is unsure. If the hand is dropped right away, the person may be shy. If the hand is held longer than it should be, it might show sexual attraction.
- Nodding during a conversation can make it seem the person is agreeable and interested. Nods are catching, so if one person nods, soon others will begin nodding. Your character might begin nodding if he wants to convince others to go along with what he’s saying.
- Posture. “In a slump” comes from slouched shoulders when a person holds on to stress or sadness. Standing straight is positive, confident, and focused.
- Face. Touching the face, twirling the hair, brushing hair away from the face, or hands on the face or mouth can be flirty or make one seem to want attention.
- Locking Eyes. Locking eyes with someone may make your seem character trustworthy. If eye contact is held for a long time, it will seem threatening. Everyone has a threshold where things go from acceptable to awkward to frightening.
- Smiling gives a feeling of connection to another who will generally smile back. People smile for a reason, show it.
- Stance. Standing with uncrossed arms or legs tends to give an open and available vibe. Staring at the ground with arms across the chest sends the signal that the person is closed off and out of reach. There is also standing at attention or at ease that gives a military feeling of power.
- Hand Gestures. When talking with your hands, it’s more likely your words will be remembered. But big movements make you seem out of control and excitable.
- Dilated Pupils. When aroused by someone or something, the pupils dilate. It’s a bodily function and can’t be controlled. Having large pupils tends to make one more attractive, because they resemble dilated or aroused pupils.
- Tense Lips. Liars are more likely to have tense lips. Being tight-lipped tends to come across as untrustworthy. Tense or narrowed lips are also associated with negative thoughts, fears, or anger.
- Personal Space. Leaning away from someone, fidgeting, or crossing your arms are a sign that will have others questioning your motives. Leaning forward suggests reliability or interest. Personal space varies and the closeness one person finds acceptable will be too close for another.
- Micro Expressions. An instant of feelings on your face, a facial twitch, a grimace, or a fleeting frown leaves an impression that’s hard to put down. What is internal comes out as a micro or fleeting expression and leaves the observer with a gut feeling that makes them uneasy.
- Mirroring. Copying the way someone stands, sits, or their facial expression can build trust between you. But if you’re in a position of power over the other, you can weird them out.
This is a tiny, miniscule touch on body language. If you want more, go to Amazon and check out what’s available.
Remember, the goal of writing is to get the reader to imagine what you see in as brief a space as possible. That involves several methods, either used singularly or in combinations.
- Use sensory details. The senses are used to provide vivid verbal pictures of people, places, things, events, the mood of the scene, and ideas.
- Emphasize the overlooked item. An example would be a beach scene where a piece of amber sea glass gleams in the incoming tide.
- Use figures of speech where they’ll do the most good. Don’t over-use figures of speech to the exclusion of other verbal imagery.
- Don’t use clichés. If you’ve written something that flows naturally off your pen, you might want to consider—is it a cliché?
- Describe the way a character moves, how they carry themselves. Do they walk like an old man, bent over and shaky? Do they have a spring in their step like a young athlete?
- Try to avoid boring, single-word descriptions. For example, instead of saying, “The man was tall.” Say something like, “The man ducked as he came through the doorway.” But, beware of being too wordy and adding too much information for that moment.
- Use vivid words. A few examples of boring words turned into imagery: We ate breakfast, becomes-We sat down to pancakes with blackberry syrup and spicy sausage. The woman smiled, becomes-She had a Julia Roberts smile, all teeth, and bright eyes.
- Cut down on adjectives and adverbs. Modifiers don’t enrich verbs or other words as much as people think they do. When you edit, find a stronger verb so you don’t need an adverb. “She strolled into the room” is better than “she walked casually into the room.” Make sure the actions maximize their descriptive potential by eliminating any unnecessary or repetitive words. Don’t stack adjectives; use two if you must, but be careful not to pile on too many.
- Get to the point. Avoid pointless rambling and over-writing. Stay focused on the scene and keep it moving.
- If you want to draw attention to something, put it at the end of a sentence/paragraph, or as close to the end as you can. Placing it at the beginning is a second choice. Never bury important information in the middle.
- Watch for redundancies such as: blue sky, green grass, small child.
When You’re Editing
While you’re drafting the story, description isn’t as important as getting your words on paper. When you begin the editing process, look for those places that need a little something to make it better. Watch for areas where the settings, moods, objects, and emotions that are important to the story are described.
Are the images you’ve created strong and specific to the story? If yes, that’s great. But can you tweak them? Often it only takes an added word or two. If the answer is no, then use your imagination to picture the scene. Think about how you can change what you’ve written, what can you add or subtract to improve your imagery.
Just as you don’t want to overdo description, too little description leaves the reader with only a vague idea of what’s going on. They need to keep track of what’s happening, where the characters are, and what they are doing. Aim for balance. The last thing you want is to lose the reader.
You’re a writer, you’ll write better if you read. Read in the genre you’re writing. Take notice of how other writers deal with description. Some will be tight and still get the picture across. Others will go to great lengths describing something until you find yourself skipping down the page. Some will be just right, or balanced, with enough to put you into the scene and make the story real. Pay attention to what you read.
Thank you for being here. If you have questions: [email protected] will get you answers.