You know how some people are excellent at creating the most descriptive narratives?
Wondrous descriptions of fantastical places, landscapes and characters. Dreamy castles, blood-curdling dungeons.
I’m not great at painting grand spaces in my stories, I admit it. I like to get the big picture down.
The dialogue that floats around in my head. Write everything from start to finish so you don’t lose that idea that’s been hounding you.
For a first draft, that’s fine. It’s all about getting your ideas on paper and sorting out the rest later. But, at some stage in your writing journey, you will have to figure out some better descriptions than ‘old man’. Or ‘ancient watch’. What’s so special about this ancient watch? Why should the reader be as fascinated by it as the character holding it seems to be?
The magic of descriptions slides in. Granted, some writers get away with minimalistic description.
There should be a nice balance between the imagination of the reader and of the writer. During key moments you need to get a little more detailed. Language is there to help the flow of your story, not stunt it.
I am, by no means, perfect at this. Absolutely not. I’m still learning every day but here is a list of things that have helped me work on my descriptive skills.
Descriptions are not about throwing in as many adjectives as possible or telling the reader about the weather in each paragraph. It’s about conveying a feeling.
One of the best ways to improve your descriptions is by learning from authors who are amazing at it. That’s pretty straight-forward, right?
Most fantasy or sci-fi books are superb at this. The first author that came to mind when I thought about this was George R.R. Martin. I guess most people know him, he’s the creator of Game of Thrones after all. His descriptions are breath-taking. I never get bored reading them. Some authors just list what a place looks like. Martin shows the reader around through all senses and feelings. He’s also created extensive, imaginative places many can only dream about. We get an immediate image drawn into our heads.
Neil Gaiman is another master at this. I was just skimming through his Wonderbook yesterday. It’s a guide on how to create imaginative fiction. If you need inspiration, it’s a great read.
Plus, the illustrations really get your creativity flowing.
Put yourself in the shoes of an artist. Painting or drawing is not that different from writing.
You use those eyes of yours and see. Then you transform it onto a canvas or piece of paper.
It’s your interpretation of the world around you. To create a great painting you need to think about the details. Shadows, texture, colour composition, structure, focus. It’s the same with writing descriptions. Is that dress your character adores a warm crimson red or a colder pale red?
What effect might it have on the reader when your character wears a blood-coloured gown?
What material is it? Silky or stiff cotton? How does the material feel under the character’s fingers?
Is it itchy or smooth like a second skin? Could she forget that she is wearing a dress at all which makes her act more free-spirited than she usually is?
One of my favourite exercises is to sit down and write up a story to a piece of art. Take the Mona Lisa, where do you think she sits?
How did she get there? How would she have experienced the landscape around her? How does she feel in the clothes she’s wearing? This exercise is super doable because you already have a basis for your description. But, from whatever perspective you approach it, it will be different.
You could also try and describe your own home. You spend every day there. How would a character who has never been there experience it? Try to see your own four walls through the eyes of a stranger. What would be the first thing a young boy would notice when he walked in? Probably not the shoe and coat rack. Maybe he’d be drawn to the colourful piggy bank, he’d shake it, sending the coins inside into a rattling frenzy.
Sometimes what gets in the way of a great description is simply our own mind. Is this too wordy? Too long, too much? We over-think. And the result – either you overload your piece of work or you have no description at all. The minimalist approach can be great but you have to offer your reader some form of guidance. Some may like the challenge of a blank room, but a skeleton is not a human. Give it some skin, hair, a posture. Clothes.
If you really can’t think of any descriptions, take a walk through nature. Or your urban neighbourhood. Don’t take a pen or your phone. Walk and see. Then when you come home, sit and write everything down. Every random detail, every odd occurrence.
Let it all spill out and don’t think about it.
How did it feel? Go through all your five senses.
Sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell. It can be a great idea to build up an archive of your favourite descriptive phrases. That way you can go back to it when you need inspiration. This works everywhere. Next time you take a bath or a shower, think about all the sensations you experience.
When you eat, be mindful of all the flavours in your mouth or the heat that spreads inside your stomach. Take all these sensations and form them into words. And then, put feelings into it.
Give your character a personality. Maybe he gets annoyed when someone drags their feet on the asphalt. Or he hates the scent of strawberry bubblegum from a young girl at the bus stop.
Or he might be obsessed with the crumbling, orange leaves that fall from trees in October.
The reader will wonder why and you can choose to reveal, or not. It feeds into the growth of a story.
This one I am testing right now. I have always liked reading poetry. The skilful twist on words to describe how someone experiences the world. It is such a specific art of words.
When I forced myself into a corner with my writing, I turned to poetry. I grew up reading a lot of Sylvia Plath poems so the challenge was on. Poets see the world a little bit different from fiction writers.
They describe the world through beautiful metaphors and poetic lines. Whereas a writer would produce several pages of prose. For me, writing poems was a big help in extending my vocabulary and writer’s eye. I don’t stick to a specific rhyme scheme most of the time. It just flows, but it is fun when a coherent structure comes out.
Of course, I still write prose but sometimes I catch myself sounding very poetic in what I write and I don’t mind it one bit.
It adds a beautiful flow and when you toss in some unusual imagery. The reader cannot help but be captured by your words. Especially micro-poetry I have grown fond of. The challenge of expressing a colossal concept within a few lines is a fascinating game. When you are someone who tends to write wordy sentences, micro-poetry might be of interest to you.
What did I learn over the last few months, growing my poetry portfolio? (Check out my insta if you want to see some of my poems/ write-ups)
Dare to improvise, write the strange things, write the aches of your heart. Write with the five senses, explain what you feel.
Make it weird. Weird makes people feel something, whether good or bad. And when people feel something they will remember your words and cherish them.
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