The Art of Descriptive Writing

A fabulous, forest nymph with long hair

The invocation of literary magic lies in mastering the basic elements of storytelling. I’m sure one of these must be your forte:

  • Emotionally attaching the reader to the main character and creating plausible character arcs
  • Vivid descriptions of the setting, which derives from worldbuilding
  • Being the wizard/witch of atmosphere and mood
  • Creating high stakes and mastering the build-up and release of tension
  • Writing dialogue which grabs the reader by the collar and pulls him into your story never letting go until he reads the last line.

Each of the above-mentioned demand descriptions which release only the necessary information. I respect the northern nature because I hunted with my father. My loving memories of him tone my chapters on untamed fells and sacred ponds. I went overboard in my first draft—nothing wrong with the passages per se, except they dragged on with excruciating detail. The reader wants to get on with the plot. You’ll bleed when you delete carefully crafted passages, as I did, but Kill Your Darlings applies to descriptive writing. If you write fantasy, your text feeds on worldbuilding, and the art of choosing becomes a matter of literary life or death. The same applies to historical fiction. As you researched expertise grows, you risk boring the reader with excessive facts.

The greatest classics of mankind can’t be used as a reference on how much to describe. The literary competition has changed since the times of George Orwell and Vladimir Nabokov. Different genres have separate rules on the desired length, and I write thrillers, so you don’t have to agree with me but let me introduce a few interesting theses.

Start With The POV

All fictional descriptions start with the selection of the Point of View. Remember to filter the setting and background through the eyes of your character. Describe what your character would notice, otherwise, you break the spell and cast the reader out of your magical world.

Third Person

The third person is the weapon of choice for most modern authors, and you can choose between omniscient and limited 3rd. Omniscient 3rd: the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story. Limited 3rd: the narrator knows only the thoughts and feelings of a single character, while other characters are presented only externally.

An example of the third person:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

George Orwell, 1984

Notice how Orwell binds the setting to the movement of the MC? He uses verbs to describe. And he wrote dystopian—a genre which demands compelling worldbuilding.

More information: https://www.thebalancecareers.com/third-person-omniscient-point-of-view-1277125

First Person

Although the first person has become unpopular in literary fiction, it’s the right glove if you need to punch the reader with what the MC goes through. The 1st person limits what the main character observes through your descriptive ammo. Be careful and remember to invoke emotions.

An example of the first person:

April

Opposite the fireplace and beside me, the telephone. To the right, the sitting-room door, and the passage. At the end of the passage, the front door. He might come straight here and ring at the front door. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Or he might phone from a transit center as soon as he got here. “I’m back — I’m at the Lutetia to go through the formalities.” There wouldn’t be any warning. He’d phone. He’d arrive. Such things are possible. He’s coming back, anyway. He’s not a special case. There’s no particular reason why he shouldn’t come back. There’s no reason why he should. But it’s possible. He’d ring. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Lots of other things like this do happen. In the end they broke through at Avranches and in the end the Germans withdrew. In the end I survived till the end of the war. I must be careful; it wouldn’t be so very extraordinary if he did come back — it would be normal. I must be careful not to turn it into something extraordinary. The extraordinary is unexpected. I must be sensible: I’m waiting for Robert L., expecting him, and he’s coming back.

The phone rings. “Hello? Any news?” I must remind myself the phone’s used for that sort of thing, too. I mustn’t hang up, I must answer. Mustn’t yell at them to leave me alone. “No, no news.” “Nothing? Not a sign?” “Nothing.” “You know Belsen’s been liberated? Yes, yesterday afternoon…” “I know.” Silence. “You mustn’t get disheartened, you must hold on, you’re not the only one, alas — I know a mother with four children…” “I know, I’m sorry, I haven’t moved from where I was. It’s wrong to move too much, a waste of energy, you have to save all your strength to suffer.

Marguerite Duras, The War: A Memoir. Translated from French by Barbara Bray.

Duras’ short, repetitive sentences convey her traumatic stress. The setting comes through as the objects she touches and the doorway a portal where her imprisoned husband might appear. The text centers on the heroine’s mental state—and that’s the beauty of the 1st person.

The Framework of Sensory Perception

The human species relies on visual perception and that’s why writers tend to concentrate on what the MC sees. A tiger might listen and the dog would rather smell if you wrote their POV. When your character turns into a werewolf, remember to incorporate the canine way of taking in the world.

Our senses fail the objectivity test because the brain translates perceptions to fit the overall world view. If you write historical fiction, the cosmology of the era might define if the MC believes his own eyes or not. If a modern doctor stepped into the scene of exorcizing a demon and gave the patient a cocktail of antipsychotic medicines, how would the people of a Middle Age village react? I’m pretty sure none would explain the miracle with the function of neurotransmitters.

The use of due historical language can make your text hard to wade through. Even if you use modern English for the most part, remember that religious communities didn’t allow cursing out loud. The 21st-century heroine can scream ou F**ck and what not but people were God-abiding folks before the scientific/industrial revolution, and everyone attended the Sunday Mass. The reaction to sensory perception minds time and place.

If you write flashbacks, remember that remembering obeys emotion. The smell is a powerful conveyor of memories across decades, and people tend to weapon-focus during torture and battle. The framework guides you which sensory details to choose into your descriptions.

The Big Five

I’ve addressed the five basic senses before in my blog but here’s a list:

  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Smelling
  • Tasting
  • Touching

Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which I quoted in my blog post about worldbuilding? If not, check it out:

https://rebeckajager.com/2018/11/22/give-your-characters-hell-a-crash-course-in-world-building/

Nothing stops you from making up senses of your own (Spiderman). If you write within the fantasy or supernatural genre, your MC exercises a variety of abilities like levitation (what would he see from the bird’s POV?) and foreboding (find a unique way to write the MC’s sensory experience during the premonition.)

“Allowing our characters to use their senses will take our writing to the next level. We hear it all the time: show—don’t tell. This is when we make our words come alive as we invite our readers to experience our story—not just read about it.”

Source: https://thewriteediting.blogspot.com/2016/03/using-sensory-perception-in-your-writing.html

List of Other Senses

  • Pressure: if someone grabs you, you can feel it.
  • Itch: everyone knows this one.
  • Thermoception: the ability to sense heat and cold. Follow this sense into writing physical reactions.
  • Sound: sound doesn’t mean only hearing, but detecting vibrations.
  • Proprioception: This sense gives you the ability to tell where your body parts are, relative to other body parts.
  • Tension Sensors: muscle tension. This one is important if your character experienced a beating or battle.
  • Nociception: In a word, pain. There are multiple types of agony and don’t forget the psychological dimension.
  • Equilibrioception: The sense that allows you to keep your balance and sense body movement in terms of acceleration and directional changes. This sense also allows for perceiving gravity.
  • Stretch Receptors: These are found in such places as the lungs, bladder, stomach, and the gastrointestinal tract. A type of stretch receptor, that senses dilation of blood vessels, is also often involved in headaches. Welcome migraine!
  • Chemoreceptors: These trigger an area of the medulla in the brain that is involved in detecting blood born hormones and drugs. When your character vomits, this automated sense is firing.
  • Thirst
  • Hunger
  • Magnetoception: the ability to detect magnetic fields.
  • Time: and this one is beneficial for a writer!

Source: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2010/07/humans-have-a-lot-more-than-five-senses/

Make Description an Active Part of The Story

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Descriptions that just sit there are generally known as “narrative lumps.” The medicine for them is show, don’t tell, but remember that you can go overboard with showing. You need traditional narration to move your plot forward, to foreshadow events and to give the readers a sense of character. Avoid info dumps and sprinkle the description evenly. Remember to bind the descriptive parts into action.

Ways to make the description part of the action:

  • Choose the best descriptors and delete the rest
  • Describe what your characters would notice while they do something else, move or speak
  • Use strong, concrete words to describe—active verbs are your allies.
  • Choose which senses fit the scene. What if your character gets blindfolded?
  • Start from basics while you write the first draft and refine through revisions. Make a note to check the use of other senses beyond seeing.

Use Character POVs For a New Angle

Your writing might become repetitive as the plot progresses past page 250. Use the introduction of new characters to change the way you describe. Strong secondary characters have their separate opinions and help you introduce a new side of the MC. Write a scene where the significant other or sidekick disagrees with the MC on which way they should turn. How does the antagonist perceive the events? It takes skill to rotate POV but check out other writers who master the skill. Also, if your world is extremely violent and cruel (like mine), the reader might attach to a person similar to herself.

Foil and Mirror Characters

Foil characters share few or no values or traits. Maybe one character is lazy and boring, and his best friend is energetic and a go-getter. These are foil characters. Put them together, and they’ll highlight each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The most common foil characters are the heroes and villains, who stand for different values and want to achieve separate goals.

Mirror characters are used for a similar purpose. They tend to share several qualities and are used to complement and highlight each other’s traits. Common mirror characters embark on parallel plots, sometimes to achieve a single goal, which tests them and highlights their traits in different ways.

Source: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/literary-devices/

Mirror Characters and Compassion

  • Using clearly stated comparisons allow readers to see what the protagonist sees and better understand the inner conflict and, therefore, theme.
  • Presenting at least two mirror characters will give the protagonist more opportunities to learn and will strengthen his/her evolution with the theme at hand.
  • Remember that the chief role of mirror characters is to show how they’re thematic opposites.
  • A character arc succeeds when readers see how a protagonist’s behaviors and thinking patterns have changed.

Source: https://diymfa.com/reading/how-mirror-characters-can-illustrate-literary-themes

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Give Evil The Central Stage – Groundbreaking Villain Moments

Demonic male with burning beard and arms.

I’m back with the concept of the villain because he/she is crucial to your story. As far as I can remember, I wanted to write a brutal villain who will stop at nothing. And I remember movies by their villainous character actors.

The definition of the villain is:

“In their role as an adversary, the villain serves as an obstacle the hero must struggle to overcome. In their role as a foil, the villain exemplifies characteristics that are diametrically opposed to those of the hero, creating a contrast distinguishing heroic traits from villainous ones.”

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villain

The definition reminds writers of the importance of struggle but contains various traps which can cast your evil one with one of the extras. The antagonist is a series of obstacles on the hero’s journey, but also an entity of his own. He has to be of the same caliber as your protagonist- preferably stronger. You wouldn’t confront Batman with a minor criminal in the final battle, would you? The Joker, played by Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger, is an unstoppable force of nature.

The villain is a central character of your book and you must treat him with respect.

He/she demands a lot of work. I advise you to sit down opposite your villain after you’ve Googled a character questionnaire form. An example of a set of character questions: https://www.novel-software.com/theultimatecharacterquestionnaire

Remember, he’ll fool you- like any respectable villain would deceive a cop during the initial interrogation. Each layer of deceit leads you closer to what makes him tick. That’s the point of the character interview. You might never tell the reader what he does first thing in the morning- unless that signifies something important- but you can resource the library of him when you write the groundbreaking villain moments I’ll discuss next.

If you know the depths of the villain, you know instinctively what his reactions are.

Groundbreaking Villain Moments

Whether you outline your story or start tapping away in the presence of your divine muse, remember to create major plot points for the villain. These key scenes can make the character relatable, or scare the shit out of your readers if that’s what you’re aiming for.

My list of villainous scenes isn’t complete. I’ve chosen the important few, with movie clip examples.

The First Look

The first impression of the antagonist defines the image of the hero’s counterforce. How do you introduce the villain? Hopefully not by describing his hair and eye color, and his dashing good looks which make the ground shake beneath your feet. Don’t get me wrong- I daydream of good-looking villains, but you must start with:

  • his first crime
  • the first harsh word
  • the evil glance
  • he camouflaged as the slightly creepy everyman
  • someone you’d never suspect but happens to be on the scene
  • And so on. The sky is the limit with villain introductions.

When I was seven, a known bully- a big one- waited for me on my way home from school. Trying to outrun him was futile, and he knew where I lived. He caught me and suffocated me with snow. This happened each winter afternoon until I learned the subtle art of evasion.

Meeting your villain is like the childhood moment when an overpowering person grabs your arm and you understand that he’s not letting go.

Think of ways to make the reader afraid of him- or what he can cause- and you’re on the right road. We’re talking about power and violence. You might go the sly route: let him appear harmless, and the fear doubles with shock as he strikes. The ill omen of doubt must be present from the beginning. Building a believable personification of evil is hard work.

The First Confrontation

“The moment when your villain and hero meet face-to-face is a wonderful opportunity to show us why your villain will be a good foil for your hero. These confrontations are at their best when the villain reveals a chink in your hero’s armor.”

Source: https://thewritepractice.com/villain-scenes/

An example from the movie Matrix, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) interrogates Keanu Reeves: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4D7cPH7DHgA

At the end of the scene, we understand that something is seriously wrong with the movie’s world.

The Hero’s Temporary Defeat

You’ll recognize the hero’s failure from every Hollywood movie you love. You can combine this scene with The Villain Shows His Cards, or The Monologue– the spot in the James Bond movie where Ernst Stavro Blofeld describes his complete plan to rule the world.

The Hero’s Temporary defeat deals with stakes. You’ve given us the stakes at the beginning of your hero’s journey (inciting incident) and when you introduced the villain. Now is the time to provide us with a bitter taste of defeat. The temporary failure means a foretaste of death.

What would a bad guy do if your loved one was at his mercy and you were unable to stop him?

Let J. T. Walsh tell you while the hero (Kurt Russell) is rendered powerless. A magnificent scene from the movie Breakdown: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NAszvB80Ws

The occasional movie-goer knows instinctively that the hero will get help, or he has an ace up his sleeve, or the villain is so mesmerized by his plan that he doesn’t see the sidekick creeping up on him… whatever you choose as the vessel of turning the tables, and moving towards the resolution. Temporary defeat is at its best when the reader believes that the hero cannot recover from the blow.

It’s your villain’s grand moment. Let him show off his hideousness. In movies, this trope takes a hell of an actor to twist the scene into something previously unseen.

The Origin Story

The Origin Story is the villain’s chance to explain himself. Let his humanity shine through, and the reader can relate to him. Take Marvel character Loki: “sibling rivalry and daddy issues explain his actions. Being always in Thor’s shadow isn’t good for Loki’s overall mental health, and finding out that he’s adopted doesn’t help.”

Source: https://io9.gizmodo.com/10-villain-origins-that-actually-make-sense-1742183593

Most of us don’t work for the Devil. Reasons like: “the end sanctify the means” and “history demands action” and “I obeyed orders” have paved the way to hell on many occasion. The explanations don’t make the crime justifiable but offer a view on human logic.

Remember that explaining the Devil can take the scare away. If your evil one is a psychopath, don’t bother with the origin story.

Sometimes the human mind attempts to see something which isn’t there. The search for Ted Bundy’s soul is futile. Javier Bardem offers one of the most accurate movie depictions of psychopathy as the stone-cold hitman Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. He needs no origin story. He is what he is.

The hotel scene between Woody Harrelson and Javier Bardem is pure brilliance:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-d1S79zt8c

Enjoy!

Express Yourself- Finding The Elusive Writer’s Voice

Collection of masquerade masks hang on a home's wall

What do you see when you look at yourself in the mirror? Wrinkles, the bags under your eyes and other flaws… or are you happy with your reflection because it shows the wisdom you have gathered with the mileage?

Maybe you want to be perceived through your work? You tap away on the keyboard,  send the manuscript to the publisher, and they take care of the rest while you write the opening line of your next bestseller in your dusty chamber.

I’d be happy with that.

Perhaps you love the internet and it loves you back. The top agent snatches you off the market because of the enormous following you’ve attracted in Social Media, and the rest is history.

Most writers- people- fall somewhere in between. You can hire someone to do publicity. Many learn the secrets of Indie-marketing through hard work. The public persona of a writer is a mask. You’ll find the intimate person between the pages of his/her books.

You On The Page

Writing a book is a massive endeavor which exhausts any creator. When the storylines run dry, and the tenth editing round tastes like shit, you must use your history to dig up fresh ideas. How does one pour himself on the pages of the book?

When you read the work of world-class writers, you hear a human voice which speaks to you. You sense the writer’s soul- the life which she led. Sometimes the tones are subtle, and you don’t understand where everything is coming from until you grab her autobiography. Lessons in World War molded the writer’s voice of Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and Marguerite Duras. When you look at their work, it’s obvious.

The effort to separate your persona from your writing is futile. You’re working against yourself if you try to hide who you are. It makes no difference if you write a memoir (riveted with true scandals), or a future story unlike anything in the history of Sci-Fi. When you are serious about the art of literature, you must develop a unique writer’s voice.

“The writer’s voice is not something you can measure, it’s subjective. But, even so, possible to be defined and identified.”

The literary agent, Rachel Gardner, defines the writer’s voice: “Your writer’s voice is the expression of YOU on the page.”

Your voice:

  • should reflect you: what you feel and believe; what moves you.
  • The tone in your writing is the most important element of your voice.
  • Your voice is the rhythm that prints the pace of the text.
  • You learn to be a better writer, you change genres, but whatever you write, your voice is always a central element.

Source: https://writingcooperative.com/the-writers-voice-what-is-and-how-to-find-yours-ed82f1884984

The voice is still elusive despite all the explaining. The voice is like Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. It’s something you’ll learn by writing several books and short stories and blogs. You recognize the voice of Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. It’s the common denominator of a career.

Common Elements Vs. Your Voice

Mastering the art of literature demands that you use the excellent writer’s toolset: Consistent Point of View, Showing Not Telling, and answering the Spiritual Question, in the end- to provide a few examples. If you don’t abide by the rules, the reader gets thrown out of your book.

How do you characterize your hero/heroine? Remember, what moves you is an essential part of the writer’s voice. Some main characters appeal to you more than the others.

  1. The willing hero- James Bond
  2. The unwilling hero- Frodo Baggins
  3. The tragic hero- Oedipus
  4. The classical hero- Wonder Woman
  5. The epic hero- Beowulf
  6. The antihero- Tony Soprano (one of my all-time favorites)

Source: https://nybookeditors.com/2018/03/6-types-of-heroes-you-need-in-your-story/

What is your book’s plot type? Adrienne Lafrance describes archetypal plot arcs as ‘core types of narratives based on what happens to the protagonist.’

The six core types are:

  1. Rags to riches (a complete rise)
  2. Riches to rags (a fall)
  3. Man in a hole (fall, then rise)
  4. Icarus (rise, then fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise, then fall, then rise)
  6. Oedipus (fall, then rise, then fall)

Source: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/understanding-storytelling-arc/

Again, your choice describes you as a person and writer.

The Message

I’m pro-message when it comes to writing books. My favorite thesis as a dystopian writer is: “Humanity will never learn,” preferably pronounced with the deep voice of Morgan Freeman echoing into the void. Why? It has something to do with being me. Maybe my life experiences molded a cynical worst-case personality, or I just fell in love with dystopian literature as a fourteen-year-old. Go figure, but I’ve woven myself into the book I’m writing.

My second book will be a supernatural spy thriller. War and sacrifice shall continue to entice me. That’s my writer’s voice going through the loops of natural evolution.

My suggestions for nurturing the elusive ghost of the writer’s voice:

  • Write about things which excite or scare you.
  • Convey a message through your theme.
  • Arouse awareness of injustice.
  • Reveal your moral beliefs.
  • Pour yourself into the characters.
  • Observe the character traits of people you know.
  • Use your life experiences, hobbies and professional knowledge to build the setting and plot.
  • Visit places similar to the environment of your book. Smell, observe, feel.
  • Write what you’d love to read.