Vivid word choices enhance detail

A portrait painter works in large tonal blocks first, light and dark, before adding detail. As writers, we can do the same, focusing on the big-picture elements as we write and do our developmental edit. But now we are down to line editing, adding the details that will make the portrait of our characters come alive.

One thing that elevates prose from mediocre to great is word choice. Using precise words rather than general ones enhances the reader experience. It’s one thing to give your hero a car. It’s another thing to give him a sports car. Give him an Aston Martin and you’re at a whole other level.

Vivid word choices enhance detail

Photo © farizaa • Fotolia

Photo © farizaa • Fotolia

I don’t mean to say that you need to specify the make and model of every single item in your story. Too much product placement can weigh a book down. But cars, fashion, and, if it’s appropriate to your genre, weapons, are all good candidates. The woman who wears Christian Louboutin shoes is very different from the woman who just wears high-heeled pumps. Know your characters and your readers.

Sometimes to be specific you need to add an adjective—is the chair an armchair or a side chair? Other times, you need to find a specific word. Maybe it’s a rocker or a recliner. At times like that, a reverse dictionary can help.

How nice is nice?

Nice is not a descriptive word. I rarely take a word completely off the table—they all have their uses—but I see this one a lot in new writers’ manuscripts, and it’s just not descriptive.

Let’s take steaks. If we’re grilling steaks, I know I better put my husband’s on about an hour before everyone else’s, because he likes his well-done. I like mine medium. That’s what I call a nice steak. Our neighbor Jim? He’ll tell you “show the steak a picture of a fire.” He likes his dangerously rare.

Three entirely different definitions of “a nice steak.”

What about a nice living room? A nice pair of shoes? A nice neighborhood?

The living room might be elegant or cozy. The shoes could be fashionable or comfortable. The neighborhood might be wealthy and snooty or poor and friendly.

Even to describe a person’s behavior, nice is insufficiently specific. If I say “she was nice to me,” that could mean she displayed a modicum of politeness, or it could mean she went out of her way to help me.

As you edit, purge generalities. Use specific words to describe things and people—words that reflect the way the viewpoint character feels about them.

Engage all the senses in your novel

I used to have a critique partner who was really good about examining each scene for the sensory details that were missing. For example, when a couple of characters walked into a kitchen where a woman was cooking, and I hadn’t thought to describe the smells.

All senses are engaged as appropriate to each scene.

Try not to obsess over this kind of detail early on, but once you reach the polishing stages of your edit, run down every scene and consider all five senses: is there one that belongs there that you’re missing, like I was?

Using Five Senses Fiction

Illustration © adrenalinapura • Fotolia

Vision: We usually get this one right, because even verbal people like writers tend to think “camerawise,” that is, describing what a camera would see if the book were a movie. But go a little further and consider things like what time of day it is—at what angle does the light hit the windows? Is it bright midday light, or the golden light of late afternoon?

Sound: Some noises are so loud you feel it in your bones. Others are so quiet you strain to hear. Every setting, even a library, has ambient noises. Describing those background noises will help set the scene.

Smells: If someone’s in her own home, she’s unlikely to notice the smell unless it’s different from usual. Maybe the trash has gone rancid, or her husband is cooking something spicy. But she’ll notice the smell of her neighbor’s home, even if it’s just because the neighbor uses a scented laundry detergent.

Taste: Not only the taste of food or drink, but think about how the air tastes when there’s a fire upwind. Or a dusty, windy day when you can taste the dirt in your mouth. In the autumn, when the weather turns cool, the air doesn’t just feel and smell different, it tastes different.

Touch: When your heroine curls up under her favorite blanket to read, is it soft wool from the best shop, or scratchy acrylic yarn her grandma bought at K-mart? In fight scenes, don’t just show the punches, describe how it feels to be hit. And remember that the knuckles of the one doing the punching usually take a beating as well. Another feeling that’s easy to forget is the feeling in your joints when you’re doing some activity. Whether your hero is surfing or skiing or riding a horse, he’s going to feel it in his muscles and joints. Try to capture that feeling for the reader.

Run a sensory check on every scene. Sometimes the answer will be no; there’s nothing unusual to feel or hear or smell. Don’t distract the reader by putting in irrelevant sensations just to tick an item off a list. But often a sensation will come to mind that fits, that amplifies whatever the viewpoint character is experiencing. Those are the details you want to add.

Know your genre’s standards for description

One of the main reasons we must read other writers in our genre is that we must know what is usual. Readers of a particular genre come to it with a set of expectations. You may tweak those expectations to make your work unique, but if you violate genre expectations too wildly, you will lose readers. Their expectations will not be met, and they will say so in their reviews.

The amount of description is appropriate to the genre.

I recall an Amazon review in which the reviewer complained that the author of a thriller had spent too much time describing people’s clothes. At first, I didn’t understand why this is a problem, because I personally like that kind of description. I had to read several other reviews of that book and others like it before I figured out that it’s a genre convention.

Photo by Bill Davenport *

Photo by Bill Davenport *

I primarily read fantasy and historical novels. These are usually full of rich descriptions. Thriller novels are not. Thrillers are active, and the readers are less interested in what a character is wearing than in what he is doing. So in a thriller or similar action-oriented genre, you will give just enough description for the reader to get a picture, and then return to the main action. Because most thrillers are set in the present day, all you have to say is that, for example, the hero is wearing black jeans and a leather jacket, and move on. Readers of this genre don’t want to know the details about the buckles on his jacket or the style of his boots. If the hero walks into a bar, you don’t have to say much more than that unless it’s a really unusual bar.

Readers of historical, fantasy, and science fiction novels, by contrast, expect a lot of description because the world being presented is very different from our own. Think of the cantina in Star Wars IV: A New Hope. If you were writing the novel version, you couldn’t just write, “Luke walked into a bar.” You’d have to take the time to describe that scene almost as thoroughly as the camera does. Otherwise the reader will not have clarity about the scene.

In a contemporary novel, you might say a woman is wearing a green dress and leave it at that. But in historical or fantasy fiction, more description would be needed. Is her dress a straight shift, or an elaborate gown with a bustle and crinolines?

Conversely, thriller readers may be very interested in a description of the hero’s weapons. But in fantasy you can often get away with simply saying he wields a broadsword; in science fiction it might be a blaster. The readers understand these terms and will move on. Of course, the principle of proportion applies: The more important the costume or the weapon or what have you is to the story, the more description it deserves.

I’ve only used these genres as examples; there are many others, and whichever one you’re writing in, you need to know what’s customary so you know what the boundaries are. Feel free to stretch those boundaries, but don’t ignore them.

Avoid extraneous details in your fiction

Part of achieving balance in your descriptions is managing the details. While on the one hand it’s possible to give the reader sensory deprivation by not providing enough details, on the other hand you can give the reader sensory overload by including too many details, especially if they are the wrong kind of details. Relevant details are necessary. Irrelevant details are distracting.

Details are relevant and add to the reader experience.

Unless you’re writing literary fiction, don’t throw in lots of poetic description for its own sake. Especially if what you are describing is the landscape. That worked for nineteenth century readers who didn’t have a thousand TV channels, video games, and smartphone apps clamoring for their attention. As Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy wrote in Writing Fiction for Dummies, “Don’t write for those readers. Every one of those readers is now dead, and they aren’t going to buy your book.” Continue reading

Details embed the reader in your storyworld

One of the most difficult aspects of novel-writing is finding the right balance between providing enough description to create an image of the storyworld in your reader’s imagination, and providing so much that the story is bogged down and ceases to move forward.

© kitzcorner • Fotolia

© kitzcorner • Fotolia

This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that every writer and reader has a different tolerance level for description. Faced with a paragraph of description, one critique partner may say it’s boring and encourage you to cut it, while another will be enchanted by your poetic imagery. You can’t please everyone so, at the risk of giving you a Ricky Nelson earworm, you’ve got to please yourself.

Within reason.

Readers get enough detail to envision each scene taking place.

You need to give the readers enough to go on. This is related to Blank Stage Syndrome. Adding relevant descriptive details will not only convey your setting, they can reveal a lot about character as well. Let’s compare.

Blayse walked into the office kitchen and poured herself a cup of coffee.

Now we know Blayse works in an office, they have a kitchen, and she drinks coffee. But how about this:

Blayse trudged into the cramped kitchen and pulled a chipped mug from the assortment hanging on the wall. She filled it with the sludge left in the bottom of the one remaining pot on the three-burner coffee maker.

Now we know she works in kind of a shabby office, but one that goes through lots of coffee, and she’s desperate if she’s drinking the dregs. One more:

Blayse opened the cherry-wood kitchen cupboard and took out one of the tall black slant-sided mugs. She placed it under the spout of the Keurig machine and plugged in a decaf caramel mocha K-cup.

Now we have a fancier kitchen with matching mugs and no concern about economizing on coffee. Blayse doesn’t need the coffee—she picked decaf. She just wants the flavor.

Not every item in your story needs to be described to this level. But the things your character handles, eats, or otherwise interacts with should be described in enough detail that the reader has an immersive experience. The degree to which your viewpoint character experiences a thing will determine the degree to which you should describe it. If Blayse walks past the kitchen on her way to the conference room, you needn’t describe the kitchen at all.

Next time we’ll look at what happens when we give too much detail.

Upcoming writers conferences

I am a big believer in writers attending conferences. Next to belonging to a great critique group, it’s the best thing you can do for your writing career. You’ll build relationships with writers and others in the business that will help you pursue your career. You’ll take classes to improve your art. And you’ll have the joy of being around people who understand what you mean when you say, “My hero went a completely different direction than I expected. He really surprised me.”

I’ll be on faculty for two Florida conferences that are coming up. Continue reading

Use similes and metaphors to aid description

Several years ago, Margie Lawson taught a workshop put on by the Florida Writers Foundation in advance of the annual Florida Writers Association Conference. Margie teaches about the need to delve deep into character emotion to reach readers. When, at the end of the course, she asked what most struck us, the fellow sitting behind me said “I need to learn to cut loose with the metaphors.”

I don’t know whether he is also a recovering journalist, but he’s right.

Comparisons and similes are used to engage readers.

A farm boy. Poor. Poor and perfect. With eyes like the sea after a storm.—The Princess Bride, William Goldman

When Buttercup describes Westley’s eyes this way, she’s using a powerful simile that even echoes the backstory, because she believes he was killed while at sea. Continue reading