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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How to Bring the Magic of Nature into Your Writing

Backcountry atmospheric  frozen remote country in winter
Lapland in the heart of a long and dark winter

Each natural place has its own form of magic. When we lived in the countryside as some still do, we had a direct connection to wind, rain, stones, fir needles… and whatever was plentiful around us. We believed in the old gods and goddesses which were natural and animalistic spirits. When humanity started to settle down and grow crops, our religions mutated. Man became the crown of creation. He ruled, and the wild beasts obeyed. We still retained some old forms of magical thought like the exchange of gifts with a deity. Devotion could save the crops and a ritualistic offering would please God.

Take a moment to reflect on your own beliefs. The nature of feeling close to God depends on the person and his/her religion.

  • What do you believe nature is?
  • How do you want to cast her in your books?

If you live in Utah, you know how the desert wind feels on your skin. You know what a clear night out there looks like. If you live in Canada, you can understand my example story because you can assimilate.

Never mind the setting. I’ll approach the subject through literary excerpts. I have my own experience of the wild Finnish nature in winter, and my fellow Write Practice Story Cartel member Nia Ellis has written a poem about the natural elements.

When you can, venture out. Smell, touch, and look around. Then write down how the weather makes you feel: blessed or annoyed? Your own immediate experience is a great muse. The research will help you to describe things that are long gone, or far away.

But nothing beats first-hand experience.

husky_eyes

My own view on the subject

I drive with my team of eight husky dogs somewhere in Northern Finland. It’s a night ride. A fresh layer of snow rained during a windy day which molded the effortless stuff into sleek dunes. The night is staggering bright with a full moon.

My dogs are panting. The light birch wood race sled runs smoothly. It weighs only twenty-two pounds and I produce one-hundred and ten more. We move incredibly fast.

The silvery moonlight reflects from the tiny crystals of the powder snow. I put out my headlamp when I reach the curve which leads into the snow-covered heart of the pine and fir tree forest. I slow down into a standstill with the soft mat brake and order the dogs to wait. I push the anchor into the deep bank with my heavy boot. The dogs jump up and down when they understand that we are going nowhere.

I yell the order “stop!” repeatedly but half of my team consists of young dogs still in training. They yank their harnesses in agitation. The white bitch, Omen, keeps bouncing up and down with all her paws in the air.

“Why are we stopping?” She seems to ask with her light blue eyes as she gazes back at me.

But I don’t give in. They must learn to wait to earn rank.

My breath puffs up in clouds. I remove my Canada Goose Expedition parka hood. I gaze up.

The Aurora Borealis lights up the sky with elusive neon green. Each inch of the black velvet is filled with stars. I take off my down stuffed mitten and my hand becomes numb in seconds. It’s freezing: minus twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. I track the outlines of the Milky Way with my index finger…

I feel the touch of God on my face.

I’m pulled out of it as Ferro, the young male, releases a sorrowful wail which can be heard for miles. Standing put is against his eager nature. His father reprimands him by standing steadfast with spread legs while the youngster yanks the ropes again. A disapproving look from the older husky’s amber eyes stops him from moving.

I pray that the harnesses can hold their strength. My huskies are lean but muscular. Each one seems to have a built-in nuclear power plant. They are molded for the race. I smile in admiration and release the anchor.

“Drive!”

(We say drive in Finland, not “Mush!”)

They move faster than my thoughts and I’m in heaven.

The Poem of Nia Ellis

Annual Seasons sang a medley of diversity.

Warm summer nights kiss softly.

A blanket of greenery dress the ground.

A chorus takes over. Soft white treasures fall from the sky.

Arctic cold wintry benumbed the innocent.

You can find out more about Nia on her web-page: niaellis.com

The Personification of Nature and Animals

What follows, is an excerpt from my book The Unholy Warrior. The two heroines dismember their enemies and feed their bodies to the wolves. This wolf pack is dangerous because the radiation has made the canines more aggressive.

“The wolves smelled blood from miles away. Rebane didn’t want them tasting human flesh near the cabin. At dusk- when they set out to hunt- it was perilous to be here. The women finished unloading the second body when Rebane saw the blazing lower half of the sun gluing to the horizon. The upper half obscured behind some serious storm clouds. The strengthening fog among the trees gave her chills. The wolf pack was cunning. They knew that the rifle on her back meant death. They would encircle her and Liva before the attack.

The dusk transformed into darkness as they unloaded the last body. The first pair of yellow eyes stalked them among the gathering mist. The wolf stood between the trees. Lush fir branches hid the queen’s body but exposed her fluffy dog-like face. Her white mask became clear as she trod softly forward. No sound preceded the animal. She floated above the ground. The scenery bathed in dim green and black. Rebane felt something soft brushing against her arm. It was fur.

“Liva, don’t move. Be silent.”

Rebane saw the outlines of the third predator moving behind Liva’s slender back. The wolf’s neck hair seemed spiky against the milky mist. The low growl wasn’t more than a whispered warning. The shadows gathered from different directions.

The queen reached the corpses. She exposed her fangs when her mate approached the kill. The saliva-dripping grimace transformed the beautiful canine face into a mask of the Devil. The alpha female’s ears pressed flat against her head and her eyes glowed with hot Sulphur. Her back arched as she grabbed Grigori’s foot from the pile. She sent his head rolling on the soft ground.

Rebane took Liva by her arm. The women retreated but kept their faces towards the crunching, ripping and swallowing crowd. The animals snapped at each other. Their powerful jaws broke bones to get to the nutritious marrow.”

Rebecka Jäger, The Unholy Warrior.

****

I love wolves, and I’ve never seen any of them as aggressive. However, I chose to add suspense to my chapter and made these wolves a bit unnatural. They are depicted as ferocious- which is entirely against their sociable nature.

Although I often use mother nature as a counterweight in my book, to balance the cruelty of humans, I wanted to depict her as a cruel mistress. That’s why I distorted the image of the wolves. The food chain is cruel.

Studies show that Chernobyl wolves thrive without human presence but they have become vicious among themselves because of nuclear radiation. The scientific fact suited my purpose because my book is post-apocalyptic.

Finally, as Jack London said it:

“The Wild still lingered in him and the wolf in him merely slept.”

Jack London (White Fang, 1906)

The wild still sleeps in us all. We know what to do when we are forced to survive on our own. Our instincts can be counted on. Listen to your inner cave man or woman.