A Brief Look at Descriptive Writing – Engage!

A few techniques for dealing with difficult description.

Your fingers are flying over the keyboard, the words in your head are peppering, rapid fire onto a blank, electronic sheet of white…then you stop. You have no idea how describe the thing, action or emotion you need without it sounding bland or overused. Everyone, and I don’t care if they have been writing for two days or two decades, has this problem. How can you help yourself get over it? I’d like to share my technique and hope it may help others fighting with devilish description.

To find a fresh sounding description I turn to senses other than sight. Sometimes we forget we have other senses, particularly when writing, and we forget the reader has them too. I have wondered why, and the thing I come back to time and again, is that writing is very visual. I see things in my mind’s eye when I write, like a movie, and I know I am not the only one. We also see words appear on a screen or a piece of paper, and the majority of readers read with their eyes. For those who read by other means due to visual impairment, such as listening to audio books or reading in braille, I wonder if the experience is different? Do audio listeners focus on sound when writing, braille readers on touch, or a combination of both? My mother used to listen to audio books after she lost her sight, but I never thought to ask her if it changed the way she perceived a storyline or characters.

I recently wrote a scene for a story that involved describing a room in which damp had taken hold. I immediately thought ‘musty’, ‘mouldy’, ‘dirty black smudges’. But that is boring. I then thought about what a room suffused in damp might smell like; perhaps that sort of taste/smell sensation that catches at the back of your throat? I came up with the raw mushroom or truffle smell of damp. Damp rooms really do have that fecund smell. I suppose ‘peat’ would also work.

That might be alright for things, but what about emotions? I sometimes read lesbian fiction, and I often see really cringe-worthy descriptions of feeling, particularly when it comes to sexual encounters. Everything is shuddering, gasping, groaning and exploding with need, want, desire or even gratitude (seriously). Unless you are writing fan fiction (and I have been guilty of such a thing in the late 1990s, hey, it was fun at the time), or a bodice ripper for a niche market, it pays to engage readers so they feel what the characters feel. It’s the old mantra, show don’t tell.

i give you

Click to check the book out on Goodreads

In my opinion, an excellent book that delves into this topic is, I Give You My Body, by Diana Gabaldon of Outlander fame, and I fully recommend it. She also talks about the senses and I agree with her. Critics (just browse the Goodreads reviews) state she’s simply written a short book to profit from her name and offer a bit of titillation rehashing scenes from her novels. But you know what? If I’d sold as many books as she has and had them made into a multi-season TV programme, I would not give two hoots about what the ‘critics’ thought, especially since the book offers a decent insight into the skill needed to craft emotional physical encounters. In order to immerse a reader in a scene, she engages at least three senses. So we might have the feel of rough cotton sheets against sweat pricked skin, a shadow from the lamp light cast against muscle, the taste of wine in a lover’s kiss. It works.

That’s describing things in erotica, what about other emotions? It works there too:

Sadness: the warmth of a tear turning cool as it slides down a cheek and slips with the taste of salt to the corner of your mouth.

Happiness: a cheek-aching grin, thump of a racing pulse in your ears, the flip-flop of excitement in your belly.

Anger: nails digging into the flesh of your palms, the heat of rage blushing over your chest and neck, a bitter taste like bile on the back of your tongue.

Fear: The tingling itch of sudden sweat on your scalp, the clutching pain in your bowels, the sharp cut of adrenaline through the base of your throat.

I believe engaging the senses allows a writer to be more immersed in their writing, and the readers will be right alongside the characters feeling what they feel, and perhaps more importantly, feeling for them. Empathy is the goal. Your characters will be more three dimensional and memorable. They will live if your readers feel something for them.

One of the other techniques I use if I am struggling to find a non-clichéd sounding description of a thing or an emotion is to write a poem. I’ve written poetry since I was about sixteen. I used it as a way of working through the emotions I felt dealing with my mother’s death twenty-six years ago. It was rather morbid. I used to show it to my English teacher and the school contacted my father saying they thought I was suicidal. He told them, no, I wasn’t suicidal at all, simply expressing how I felt through the medium of poetry rather than bottling it all up inside. They did get it eventually and stopped worrying about me, although it is good they noticed in the first place. The point is, I found by writing poetry, I was able to use words in a more emotional way than prose, and sometimes I came across a magic combination of two or three describing exactly what I wanted. Was there anything stopping me using those magic few words in my prose? Absolutely not.

So how does it work? If I am stuck, I sit quietly for a while with my eyes closed, I allow myself to feel what it is I am trying to write, and then I just let whatever words come into my head out onto the page. After I have exhausted that stream of consciousness, I will pick through it to see if there is something that works with the prose. Usually there is. Some word combinations I’ve created using this exercise include:

  • Down-turned smile (Melancholy)
  • Occasioned tears (Crying on purpose)
  • Bra-less splendour (Relaxation (for a woman))
  • Madhouse veteran (Completely gaga)
  • An embrace of void (Feeling empty)
  • Sometimes the most sure of grasps is paper thin and wet with tears (Insecurity)
  • Every sigh of summer sun (Wistful)
  • A rootless claw fixed to unkempt hands (The self hate of low self-esteem)
  • Your own false voice shrieks (Telling yourself lies)
  • Will you understand imprudence, or snuff out, thinking yourself the brightest flame? (Describing an egotistical freak)

If nothing else, this type of exercise gets you thinking about words and expressions differently. Language is malleable, we don’t have to rely on the same things time and again to get our point across.

Do you have any particular tools you fall back on when it comes to writing description? Do you have any pet peeves relating to description that  jump off the page at you when you are reading? Share them in the comments.

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