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Summoning Images and Evoking Emotion in Descriptive Writing

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Have you ever struggled with writing description for a scene? Setting is a vital pillar of storytelling, and everyone wants to have at least an idea of what the key characters look like. But sometimes the act of describing something leaves the reader staring blankly at the screen, or repeatedly slamming their forehead into the keyboard in hopes that the random collection of letters on the page will magically morph into just the right sentence. (Spoiler: They don’t.)

Sadly, I’ve just described myself. Because I find description hard, I pay special attention to those tips and tricks that other writers have shared over the years as to how they write description. Below are two of the most helpful pieces of advice that I always keep in mind whenever it comes time for me to set the stage.

1. Imbed in the Image in the Voice of the Character

Unless you’re writing from a narrator’s perspective, all descriptions will be seen through the eyes of one character or another. And if you are writing from a narrator’s perspective, then that narrator will have a specific voice and way of looking at the world, which will in turn influence how your readers look at the world. The trick with writing description is to write it how your character sees it.  

I remember when I first started writing, I would focus on the facts—how many sets of drawers were in the room, where they were relative to the windows, etc. Basically, giving blueprints. And people don’t read blueprints in their spare time for a reason: They’re boring. Anyone could describe that. What’s something that only your character would describe?

A good exercise to practice this skill is to imagine a firefighter, a teenager, and a mother of a toddler walk into a room. A firefighter would keep in mind fire hazards: Are the appliances out of date, is the light on the smoke detector on, are the windows painted shut? A teenager would look for entertainment and comfort: What’s on the TV, does the couch look comfy? Meanwhile, a parent of a toddler would immediately look for small objects that her child might choke on or other potentially-dangerous items. The key point, though, is that they each pay attention to different details. What do your characters pay attention to?

2. Focus on Evoking Emotion Rather than Painting a Picture

Here’s a sad fact: No two readers are going to imagine your characters the same way. Same for any of your settings. The chances that they’re going to have the exact same life experiences and therefore connect the same images to words as you, and therefore see everything exactly as you see it, are nil.

But where writing fails in painting a picture, it excels at using emotions to evoke an image in the reader’s head.

Imagine a room: Yellow walls, a couche, a silver tea set in the cabinet and frills everywhere. Does it feel homey? Uncomfortable? Stuffy? Sad?

Depending on the reader and the memories they may (or may not) associate with such an image, they could feel any of the above. Your character, however, will be feeling only one—and that’s the emotion you want to evoke.

This is partially accomplished through word choice. Are the walls ‘cheery’ or ‘sickly’? Is the couch ‘faded’ or ‘well-worn’? Do the frills ‘clutter’ the surfaces or ‘decorate’ them?

The rest of this is accomplished through imagery, such as similes or metaphors. Does the sagging building remind the main character of a ‘least-favorite doll, forgotten on the streets’? Or perhaps the ballerina moved as ‘gracefully as a stream.’

Either way, in attaching emotions to particular descriptions, you give readers one more ‘sense’ to tie the image to, therefore cementing it further in their minds.

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As Mark Twain once said, the difference between the right word and almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Of course, this means that description takes time—and sometimes the longer it takes to put down a single sentence, the more demotivated you get.

If that’s the case for you, then don’t worry so much about finding the word that strikes lightning into the soul of the reader. Capture the lightning bug, move on—finish your book. There’s nothing wrong with keeping your momentum and returning later to find that lightning word. And if you’re having a hard time accomplishing anything in your writing, check out my article on Four Methods for Overcoming Writer’s Block.

Description is hard, but by keeping in mind the character through whose eyes you are gazing as well as the emotion you’re trying to evoke, then you’re more likely to create an image which will stay with the reader. What are some tips for writing description that you have? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!

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