In Part One of this “How To Write Descriptively” series I walked you through how to start being more descriptive in your writing, and then I gave you an exercise to try.
Another part of being able to write descriptively is really focusing on using your five senses:
When you use your senses it makes it very easy for people to understand what you’re describing, because you can detail it in a way that they can relate to.
Here’s an example from the book, Description and Setting, by Ron Rozelle. In the book, he talks about the difference between showing and telling. He gives an example of what could be a line in a story: “A good time was had by all.”
OK, cool, we understand that. Everybody had a good time.
But it’s not very engaging; it’s not very interesting.
If you read that in a book, you probably wouldn’t think, “Oh I need to turn the page and see what happens next.” But, if you write it more descriptively, it can be a lot more engaging and interesting.
The example Rozelle used in Description and Setting, is from the novel, Sula, by Toni Morrison. She has a passage in her story showing that people had a good time. It says:
Old people were dancing with little children. Young boys with their sisters, and the church women who frowned on any bodily expression of joy (except when the hand of God commanded it) tapped their feet. Somebody (the groom’s father, everybody said) had poured a whole pint jar of cane liquor into the punch, so even the men who did not sneak out the back door to have a shot, as well as the women who let nothing stronger than Black Draught enter their blood, were tipsy. A small boy stood at the Victrola, turning its handle and smiling at the sound of Bert Williams’ “Save a Little Dram for Me.”–Sula by Toni Morrison
See the difference?
You could easily tell the reader, “A good time was had by all,” but when you describe it in the way Morrison described it, it really paints the picture, it really shows vivid details, and proves why you should turn the page and read on.
It engages you; it makes you want to know what happens next.
So that’s really the biggest difference between just telling a reader something and showing it to her.
Writing descriptively is always a balance between showing and telling. If you want to keep your reader interested, you need to paint a picture of situations and emotions that the reader can relate to.
Obviously as humans, we all have five senses in common, and then we also have lots of experiences that we’ve had in common, and maybe they didn’t happen the same way, but the outcome was the same. (Things like divorce, or marriage, or childbirth, etc,.)
You can’t necessarily relate to everything, but you can relate to it in some ways, and descriptive writing is the way to make that happen for your reader.
Here’s another example. This is one is from a Houston Chronicle article about tea.
Now Rozelle suggested that author, Jessica Danes, could have just started off saying something like, “The world of tea is wide and varied” or ” One of the world’s oldest foods is also one of the most interesting.”
Fine, that’s good information, but it’s not going to grab the reader’s attention, it’s not really going to engage them or show them what tea is all about.
What she actually wrote instead (and this is just a couple of sentences):
It tastes like the earth. Pungent and loamy and more real than anything you’ve ever tasted in awhile. A sip and the daydreaming starts—of high-peaked mountains and the tender plants that prized leaves were plucked from. Tea can do that to you.–Jessica Danes
She really makes you think, “Oh, I’ve tasted things that taste earthy, that taste pungent, mushrooms and things like that. Oh yeah, I recognize that.” She really played to your senses when she wrote this piece. So that’s what you need to do with your writing, too.
An Exercise (Cont’d)
Now going back to the list you made (from Part One) of details from a significant day you had. I want you to take two minutes now and go back to that same list, but this time, I want you to recall any details relating to your senses.
What did things smell like, what did it taste like, what did it feel like, what did you see, what did you hear?
When you have this new list, you can now use it (and the list from Part One) to write a few paragraphs describing your significant day. Be sure to have a balance of showing and telling.
And that’s how you write descriptively.
Now start practicing.
Writing descriptively is just part of the puzzle of writing a story you can publish. You also need to know story structure and how to unfold the story in the most optimal way.
I can help!
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