Incorporating Descriptions Into Writing
By Shelly Bhagat & Hannah Ramsey
You’re cruising along, writing that story you can't wait to submit until you decide to stop and read what you have written. Unexpectedly, your writing feels like taking a road trip through a Midwestern cornfield: flat, endless, and immensely boring.
"This is utter trash," you tell yourself, "how do I fix this monstrosity?"
Do not fear, my friend, for this has happened to all of us at some point. What you are lacking is the spice in a bowl of bland, mashed potatoes; the icing on a chocolatey cupcake (which is obviously the best part). Don't worry––incorporating descriptions into writing is fairly simple, and it will for sure take your writing to the next level.
The first thing to do would be to close your eyes and envision the scene that you are writing about in your mind. Let's say that you’re writing a scene about Halloween in Fall (just humor me here: I'm writing this the day before Halloween, so I'm 100% in the mood for spooky season). You have a very vivid picture of what Halloween looks like in your head, but how do you get it out on paper, might you ask? The easiest thing to do would be to simply write down a list of words that you associate with what you are writing––in other words, incorporating the five basic senses: what you see, feel, taste, hear, and smell. Here is my basic list:
While this is a great list to start with, it probably won't take you very far due to the lack of detail. The best thing to do would be to elaborate on what you already have and add more details. I often tell the authors of the pieces that I'm editing to show rather than tell. The best way to do this would be to really play around with figurative language, specifically: metaphors, imagery, and personification.
Adding figurative language can sometimes be difficult if you aren’t sure about where you’re going with it. I would suggest closing your eyes and envisioning exactly what you are writing about. Take in every single tiny detail of the surroundings and write it down. For instance, what specific shade of orange are the pumpkins? What exactly does the coffee taste like? Then ask yourself: what else does this remind me of? What connection can I make to something outside of what I am writing about? What do the spooky noises sound like? It sounds like a wolf howling at the moon. Is the noise really a wolf howling at the moon? Probably not. But it certainly sounds like it! Similes and metaphors are merely a starting point. Once you’ve got that down, you can play around with more advanced forms of figurative language - onomatopoeia, paradoxes, allusions, and hyperboles - in a very similar manner!
When it comes to imagery, it is often difficult to find the right word, and going through the list of vocabulary words that you had to memorize for a spelling bee in fourth grade isn't quite ideal. Thankfully, finding elaborate synonyms to the most basic words is at the tip of our fingertips with the internet. You can always find an online thesaurus to find better words or a quick internet search should find you what you need.
Here’s the newly updated list:
A tangerine colored pumpkin with a carved face and sharp thorns
A crisp wind, nipping at numb ears
Noises that sound like a wolf howling at the moon
Bittersweet whipped coffee with an aroma of nutmeg and cinnamon
A frosted, glass cup with a sparkling flame
Now it's time for the best part: putting your new descriptions into your story! Here is an example of the descriptions above being incorporated into an excerpt of a story.
Before adding descriptions: I was in a pumpkin patch at night which was lit by
candles. The wind was cold, and there were scary noises. I drank the last of my
coffee and threw the cup away.
After adding descriptions: I found myself in a pumpkin patch at twilight, musing
over the way that each sparkling flame illuminated the frosted, glass cup that they
were in. The pumpkins seemed to stare at me with their tangerine, carved faces and
their sharp thorns. A crisp wind nipped at my numb ears, which were attempting to
decipher the noise, a noise that sounded like a wolf howling at the moon. I sipped
at the last of my bittersweet whipped coffee, inhaling the last of its aroma of
nutmeg and cinnamon. Not wanting to carry an extra item, I discarded the empty
cup in the trash can.
Now that you are one step closer towards becoming the next F. Scott Fitzgerald, illustrating the exact shade of green light that Gatsby believed in (see what I did there with the allusion), you’ll have something else to say about your road trip through that flat midwestern cornfield. Just follow these steps listed above and you will see a drastic development in your writing!
Like I said, finding unique descriptors or compelling ways to phrase a particular scenario can be difficult. Sometimes it isn't as simple as googling a list of synonyms to replace a trite expression or bland image. You may even find it challenging to compose an initial list of bullet points to base your descriptions off, especially if you are working on a fiction story with characters situated in a temporal or geographical context that you are not familiar with. Having a creative (or overactive) imagination lends itself well to impressive world-building and character development, but if you find yourself uninspired and unable to think unconventionally, you may need some tools that will help you take on a fresh perspective. Some of my favorite comprise reading, research, and visualization.
There is perhaps nothing more insightful (and more fun!) than finding a well-written book that has vivid descriptions from which you can read closely and learn from. I suggest trying to find an author whose writing style you admire and seeing if they have a book within the genre you are working in.
Once you select the book you want to read, slowly go through it and be vigilant for instances of imagery (whether that be visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, or kinesthetic), personification, onomatopoeia, pathetic fallacies, etc. Once you compile a substantial amount of these sample descriptions, revisit them for analysis. For example, take a look at this excerpt from Toni Morrison's Beloved that I found:
"There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind—wrapped tight like skin. Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place."
Notice how Morrison doesn't only personify loneliness — she characterizes and typifies it. Loneliness, according to her, is not merely a feeling but somewhat of a living entity. In assigning loneliness multiple human characteristics and applying it to multiple contexts, Morrison makes loneliness seem altogether more menacing and personally relevant. If she had written:
"There are two types of loneliness: the kind that can be rocked and the kind that roams,"
then the description would be less enthralling and would not maintain the reader's attention. The key to Morrison's descriptive writing is that she focuses on non-human, seemingly straightforward concepts, like loneliness, and vivifies them. The next time you are writing, I challenge you to do the same; when describing a character's emotion, go into greater depth in regards to the details you disclose. Perhaps you can use these questions as starting points to launch from:
What do I feel?
Why do I feel this way?
Am I upset with another person, my situation, or myself?
How are my feelings physiologically manifesting themselves? What about psychologically?
*Note that "I" refers to your character, but I recommend placing yourself in the scenario opposed to simply picturing your character in the situation. Empathy is the gateway to emotionally evocative descriptions!
Throughout this process, remember that the goal is not to copy or even emulate that author's method of description. The goal is to observe what stands out to them (and thus their narrator/speaker) and how those details enhance the scene as well as the overarching effectiveness of the story.
If you find that you have ideas for descriptions that you want to develop but are still struggling to channel your abstract thoughts into words, you might want to take the research route. I do this for any piece I write, even if I already know the direction I want to take the scene with respect to the descriptions I incorporate. Why? Because I know my writing will improve through the addition of stronger specific details. Notice how I did not say more details but rather stronger and more specific. For instance, the other day I was writing about one of my character's clothing, and I needed to find a few sources on the internet that taught me about the different components of a cardigan. While you may think this is unnecessary and a tad bit strange, including these niche features into my story suddenly made my character seem much more realistic.
Some writers are fearful of writing with exacting detail because they feel as though it might alienate some of their readers. The truth of the matter is that it indeed might, but that is to occasionally be expected. Your story is not meant for all readers; it should be created with a specific audience in mind. This may mean that sometimes you include additional details which people find difficult to relate to. That's okay! Performing minor research on the topic you are writing about will imbue your work with more vivid descriptions and thus allow for you to connect more directly with your authentic readership, which is the ultimate goal of crafting a narrative in the first place.
Lastly, this hints at what I alluded to earlier concerning the importance of empathy, but I highly recommend utilizing visualization to help you with mentally constructing the setting in which you want to place your characters. Start by imaging yourself in your character's position. Visualize the scene in your mind and think about what would catch your attention if you were in that environment right now. Say, for example, you are in a café. Do you pick up on the rich scent of roasting coffee beans? Or do you smell the lavender soap that you just used to wash your hands in the chilly bathroom? Are you waiting for someone to meet you, or are you at the coffee shop alone? I encourage you to follow this rabbit-hole-like reasoning to further visualize the scene, distinguish the details that matter, and integrate them into your writing.
And there you go! Through subscribing to these steps, you should be on your way to fashioning thoughtful, creative descriptions in your writing in no time.
Shelly Bhagat is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.
Hannah Ramsey is a co-Editor-of-Chief at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.