How to write descriptively – Nalo Hopkinson

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We read fiction for many reasons. To be entertained, to find out who done it, to travel to strange, new planets, to be scared, to laugh, to cry, to think, to feel, to be so absorbed that for a while we forget where we are. So, how about writing fiction? How do you suck your readers into your stories? With an exciting plot? Maybe. Fascinating characters? Probably.

Beautiful language? Perhaps. “Billie’s legs are noodles. The ends of her hair are poison needles. Her tongue is a bristly sponge, and her eyes are bags of bleach.” Did that description almost make you feel as queasy as Billie? We grasp that Billie’s legs aren’t actually noodles. To Billie, they feel as limp as cooked noodles. It’s an implied comparison, a metaphor. So, why not simply write it like this? “Billie feels nauseated and weak.” Chances are the second description wasn’t as vivid to you as the first.

The point of fiction is to cast a spell, a momentary illusion that you are living in the world of the story. Fiction engages the senses, helps us create vivid mental simulacra of the experiences the characters are having. Stage and screen engage some of our senses directly. We see and hear the interactions of the characters and the setting. But with prose fiction, all you have is static symbols on a contrasting background.

If you describe the story in matter of fact, non-tactile language, the spell risks being a weak one. Your reader may not get much beyond interpreting the squiggles. She will understand what Billie feels like, but she won’t feel what Billie feels. She’ll be reading, not immersed in the world of the story, discovering the truths of Billie’s life at the same time that Billie herself does. Fiction plays with our senses: taste, smell, touch, hearing, sight, and the sense of motion. It also plays with our ability to abstract and make complex associations. Look at the following sentence. “The world was ghost-quiet, except for the crack of sails and the burbling of water against hull.” The words, “quiet,” “crack,” and “burbling,” engage the sense of hearing.

Notice that Buckell doesn’t use the generic word sound. Each word he chooses evokes a particular quality of sound. Then, like an artist laying on washes of color to give the sense of texture to a painting, he adds anoter layer, motion, “the crack of sails,” and touch, “the burbling of water against hull.” Finally, he gives us an abstract connection by linking the word quiet with the word ghost. Not “quiet as a ghost,” which would put a distancing layer of simile between the reader and the experience. Instead, Buckell creates the metaphor “ghost-quiet” for an implied, rather than overt, comparison.

Writers are always told to avoid cliches because there’s very little engagement for the reader in an overused image, such as “red as a rose.” But give them, “Love…began on a beach. It began that day when Jacob saw Anette in her stewed-cherry dress,” and their brains engage in the absorbing task of figuring out what a stewed-cherry dress is like. Suddenly, they’re on a beach about to fall in love. They’re experiencing the story at both a visceral and a conceptual level, meeting the writer halfway in the imaginative play of creating a dynamic world of the senses.

So when you write, use well-chosen words to engage sound, sight, taste, touch, smell, and movement. Then create unexpected connotations among your story elements, and set your readers’ brushfire imaginations alight..

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