Monday, June 15, 2009

Descriptive Writing

by Kiirsi Hellewell

Have you ever experienced this? You’re reading, nose buried in a book, when you come across a beautifully descriptive phrase. Instantly the scene becomes alive in your mind and you can vividly see, smell, and taste every detail.

Or perhaps you’ve seen the opposite…the story’s moving along at a good clip, tension mounting, when some poor writing or lack of description pulls you OUT of the story completely.

I experienced the last example recently while reading a newly-released bestseller. The description of something so basic as  time and place was so lacking that I found myself completely confused as to what was happening, and when, and where.

In a strong contrast, the book I’m reading right now, A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson, is full of creative, lovely, and downright hilarious descriptions that make me smile at nearly every page. Here are some examples:

“The dowager was a small, vague woman in her fifties…”

“Crumbling pastry like small rain through her deft, plump fingers…”

“Roses as dark as spilled blood and roses with the delicate pink of a baby’s fingernails…”

“James…[gave] his biceps their usual evening canter down his forearm.”

I still remember the first time I read Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl; how constantly in awe I was at the marvelous and descriptive words that flowed in nearly every sentence.

Here’s another one:

He had a face that needed to make a choice—either shave or grow a beard.

--Louis Sachar, Small Steps

So how can we—as published or aspiring writers—go about learning to create this level of descriptive art?

First, we need to notice it. I started keeping a file on gorgeous lines a few months ago. Studying these lines can, at the very least, provide inspiration and get creativity flowing. You could also look at a sentence or passage and analyze what, exactly, makes it so good.

Second, we need to practice. Pick something and write about it. You could try doing this twice: the first time, just describe something straight or “plain,” a sort of no-nonsense style. Then go back, adding some fun or beautiful description and imagery.

You could also try writing a scene using just one of the 5 senses, then go back and use another one. Which sense works better for this particular scene? Is a mixture of senses the best?

One of my sisters really has a gift for descriptive writing. I still have an e-mail she sent years ago describing a morning walk where she wrote “the birds shouted at us from the trees.” Shouting is normally something associated with humans, and using it in a different and unexpected approach like this is a good way to make a reader really imagine and live in a scene.

Do you have any tips for descriptive writing? A favorite book or website with good examples? Please share in the comments!

Kiirsi Hellewell is scheduled to contribute on the first and third Mondays of each month. You can find her online at her blog, or on Facebook and Twitter.


Yamile said...

I love Juliet Marillier's books. Her stories are full of beautiful descriptive language. With her words she can make you fill love, fear, sadness, so many emotions, that every time I read her books with the intention of analyzing her writing, I get lost in the story. My favorite one by her is "Daughter of the Forest," book one of the Sevenwaters Trilogy. Master story teller!

Kiirsi said...

I LOVE those books. I completely agree with you on every point. Have you read the newest one, "Heir to Sevenwaters"? It's SO good!

Taffy said...

When I was younger, Charles Dickens was always amazing to me. I could picture EXACTLY the scenes and the people he wrote about.