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This is part 2 in the series: Mastering Description

Evocative phrasing makes it easier for readers to imagine your story and builds atmosphere more effectively. In turn, that creates novelty and makes your prose engaging. While there’s a lot of pressure on writers to be creative, that doesn’t mean your description must be spontaneously generated by your subconscious. It’s a craft you practice, like everything else. Let’s go over tips for bringing your description to life.

Use Specific Terms

The more specific your choice of words, the easier it is to imagine what you’re talking about and the more unique your prose becomes.

  • “Plate mail” or “chain mail” is more evocative than “armor.”
  • A “Volkswagen Beetle” is more evocative than a “car.”
  • An “inchworm” is more evocative than a “caterpillar” and definitely more evocative than a “bug.”

The only risk here is getting so niche with your terms that it becomes questionable if your reader (or your viewpoint character) knows them. If you want to include “clematis” instead of “ivy,” the plant will need its own description.

Show as Much as Practical

While there are some limitations, you generally want description to show as much as possible. Look for vague umbrella terms that can be illustrated with more specifics. This will take more words, but it’s usually worth it.

  • Meals like “breakfast” are better described as specific foods like “fried ham and sunny-side eggs.”
  • Look out for vague and value-laden adjectives. Instead of writing that your character is “beautiful,” write that he has “luminous green eyes under dark lashes.”
  • Replace named emotions with body language. Instead of saying a character looks “surprised,” say “their eyes widened” or “her brows lifted.”

You can test whether you’re showing enough or being specific enough by asking “What does [your term or phrase] look like?” If the answer requires any thinking, the descriptor is too vague.

Use Active Verbs

When describing a scene, it’s really easy to use verbs such as “is,” “was,” “were,” “are,” “has,” or “had.” If you have those verbs in your description, you probably want to swap them out for verbs that are more active and flavorful.

  • Instead of “There were two couches in the room,” write, “Two couches faced each other across the room.”
  • Instead of “Inside the bowl was a pile of glowing stones,” write, “A pile of stones glowed inside the bowl.”
  • Instead of “The tree had golden leaves” write, “Golden leaves dangled from the tree’s branches.”

Using active verbs for objects in the environment gives you an opportunity to contrast them or work in their position, such as my example of couches facing each other.

Include Movement

Unless you specifically want to evoke a sense of stillness, avoid making the environment feel static. The world is a living, breathing place, and showing that will make your description feel more immersive. So think about what might be moving, even if it’s only periodic.

  • Out in nature, animals can skitter or fly around, insects can circle or swarm, there might be wind or precipitation, the sun and clouds can change position, plants will sway, and water might trickle or run.
  • In the city, vehicles of all kinds can be moving down the street, doors might open and close, people may be out and about, and pigeons or crows might be hopping and pecking at crumbs.
  • Indoors, lights might flicker, computers can wake up or go to sleep, pets of all kinds may stir, sinks might drip, and fans might be turning.

Including movement is not so essential that you should add a pet only to create a plot hole because no one’s around to take care of it. Simply look for opportunities where movement can be included.

Go Beyond Visuals

Adding some sensory description other than visuals will help you make the environment feel immersive and push you to do something a little different.

  • Sounds can help you highlight and emphasize movement. Those flickering lights might be buzzing, and water might run through pipes as someone turns the shower on.
  • Including smells means naming what the smell is associated with, such as roses, soil, or the sea. That makes it easy to include potent imagery, similar to metaphors.
  • Taste and touch involve direct contact, thoroughly submerging your character in their environment. They are also the least used, so they’ll help your description stand out.

You don’t have to collect all five senses in every bit of description; just avoid writing nothing but visuals.

Use Associations

Word choice isn’t just about literal interpretation or even connotation. The association we have with items is important for building atmosphere. Conversely, using terms with the wrong association can ruin the mood.

  • Let’s say someone’s wearing a hat with a feather. A peacock feather suggests they’re dolled up, a swan feather will make them sound elegant, and a robin feather naturally calls Robin Hood to mind.
  • A group of people casting a spell might form a star, evoking celestial mysticism. Alternately, the same shape could be compared to a flower, suggesting gentleness and beauty.
  • Adding a pull chain to turn on a light or ring a bell can create a darker atmosphere than using a pull string or knob.

Associations are especially important to keep in mind when using metaphors.* Don’t use a metaphor unless the imagery it calls to mind has an association that fits the atmosphere of your scene.

Make Telling Colorful

Occasionally, showing exactly what the viewpoint character perceives isn’t suitable. We might have insufficient language for the expression someone is making, or you may want your viewpoint character to receive a mysterious impression that doesn’t come from an identifiable source. When you need to tell, use metaphor, imagery, and colorful expressions to make the description more specific and evocative.

  • If your viewpoint character has a surreal dream, you might write, “My body crystallized into stained glass and then spun like a kaleidoscope.”
  • If someone looks “disappointed,” you might write, “It looked like the twinkle in her eyes had been doused by a fire extinguisher.”
  • If you want an ancient book to come off as mysterious and creepy, you might write, “The calligraphy wove through my mind, forming inky webs I couldn’t brush away.”

Switch Up Common Words

We can end up using the same words frequently because they reasonably come up a lot in the story. For these common actions and items especially, a spreadsheet of choice words can help you avoid redundancy or find the word that best matches the situation.

Common words vary by story, but they often include:

  • Walking and running
  • Sitting and standing
  • Laughing and smiling
  • Trees, grass, and clouds
  • Pavement, concrete, and roads
  • Couch, tables, and chairs

Don’t twist yourself in a knot trying to call a couch something other than a couch. Just keep an eye out for words you’ve used a lot and consider doing something different.

The more evocative your description is, the fewer words you need to have the same impact. Not only will your description be more entertaining, but your story can move along quicker too.

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