Description begins in the writer’s imagination but should finish in the readers. Stephen King
Sense of place…connection…that is the goal in both fiction and nonfiction. Skillful writers placing their readers in the bodies and minds of their characters, giving just enough tantalizing description to prompt the reader to engage his or her memory and finish the picture. The challenge, however, is to spark readers’ imaginations in new ways and avoid the heavy telling line of adjectives. So how do we do this? Below are four suggestions that have worked for me.
Refresh your senses. Take the job of describing away from your eyes. Go somewhere you can be alone. I like to refresh in the outdoors, but you can do this anywhere. Close your eyes and be silent. Listen, breathe, feel, taste, think. Don’t hurry this. Just relax and let the words come. It takes time but is so worth it. I do this often, because there are so many voices clamoring for my mind that my sharpness wears down to dullness. The following is an example of one of my refreshment exercises as I sat on my deck:
The breeze offers hope of refreshment from the sun’s determined holdover of summer. Its whispering changes into bellows, lifting cobweb strands of my hair, tickling my cheeks. In the distance a bird chants a one-note dirge and a jay screams its complaint. The crow sings off key and the hawk calls out a warning. Clearly this warrior of the sky is not pleased with the dysfunctional melody.
Isn’t that better than writing the cool breeze blew through my hair while the birds sang a cacophony of songs? I think so. You can do this anywhere you are. If you are in a coffee shop, shield your closed eyes with your hands and pretend to read a magazine. The more you do this, the more you will notice the nuances around you, sparking your imagination.
Use one sense to describe another. This is a challenging exercise, but fun too. Earlier I mentioned a blue-jay’s scream. Think…what would that bird’s call look like? To me? Shards of glass. I might write: The jagged shards of the jay’s call pierced my ears. Ask yourself what chocolate feels like or what success tastes like. Again, have fun with this.
Use light to set the mood. Harsh light gives the feel of impatience, anger, resistance. A thin stream of light through the curtains might reveal vulnerability. The sliver of dawn separating earth from sky may indicate hope. Shadows give the feeling of doubt and insecurity. Firelight in a dark room is romantic and cozy as does the twinkling Christmas Tree lights. But deep darkness, heavy on one’s soul, indicates sorrow, hopelessness or depression. So don’t forget about the light!
Reveal things about the character. Finally, think about the setting around the character such as a room, furniture, even the clothes he or she chooses to wear. Describing these will reveal a lot about the character without you having to say anything about him or her. For instance, if the character has an overflowing ash tray on the coffee table, magazines scattered all over the floor, wine glasses with gnats in them, lumpy couch cushions with a myriad of un-matching pillows. The air had a yin-yang odor of stale cigarette smoke and incense. What would that say about the person who lived there? What if the coffee table was spotless and glossy with nothing on it. Magazines are alphabetized in holders, sitting on a perfectly organized book shelf. The couch is black leather, as rectangular and hard as the coffee table. No pillows. The prevalent smell about the room comes from a lemon-eucalyptus candle. What would that tell you about the person living there? What would a grandmother’s cottage tell about her? Smell of baking? Comfy afghans? What if grandma wore a mini-skirt, a plunging neckline, and heavy green eyeshadow? By describing these things the reader would already know a lot about the character without writing a word about their person.
So you see, description is a lot more than a string of adjectives. By giving tantalizing bits of description in creative ways, your reader will connect with your prose, and as the master, Stephen King says, they will finish what you start!