Friday, September 16, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: It's Way More Than Adjectives, Baby

This forest is lush and green, with trees that are towering and stately
as they preside over the sinuous stillness of the river!

This summer, while preparing feedback for authors who subbed to me for Pitch Wars but weren't chosen, I started noticing that I was saying the same things to many of them:

"Use fewer adjectives."

This, I admit, gave me pause. I'm a descriptive writer. Lyrical, immersive, setting-as-character writing is what I love, and do, best. I love to read and write prose that sings off the page, so vivid that I'm not just visualizing the scene, I'm there.

And aren't adjectives synonymous with "description"?

The answer, as you've probably guessed, is "Yes, but no." Adjectives can be great. Think about adjectives like sizzle or protruberant or hushed. Each of those words packs a punch in just a few syllables, conjuring up just the right image or feeling in your mind as you read them. Strong adjectives (and it's important that they're strong!) are, without a doubt, a vital tool in a descriptive writer's toolbox.

Still, when you're striving for immersively descriptive prose, adjectives are merely the tip of the iceberg. Much of the time, adjectives function only at the surface layer: they do an adequate job of telling the reader what to picture, but they don't grip him by the lapels and drag them right into your book. And often, having too many adjectives—especially if they're clustered all together in one sentence or paragraph—can actually pull the reader out of your story instead of taking her deeper.

Descriptive writing is made up of many things: adjectives and adverbs, of course, but also sensory awareness, metaphor and objective correlative (sort of an extended metaphor), and a character's reactions to and relationships with the world around her. Ideally, your descriptions should be a balance of all of these things. The best descriptive writing is also unique: It's putting words together on the sentence level so that instead of skimming over the page, your reader shivers and is pulled further in to the story. You want her to see the comet fall, to feel the frisson of tension across his skin, instead of just noting that those things happened and then moving on.

In talking about this recently on Twitter, I used this example:

"The mood in the room was tense."

This tells us, obviously, what the atmosphere of the room was, but it doesn't give us a lot more than that. We're already reading on to the next line.

Adding another adjective doesn't do much for it, either; if told "The mood in the room was tense and edgy," we still aren't necessarily feeling that tension curling into our own bones.

On the other hand, if we read: "The room held its breath, the walls themselves pulled as tight as strings"—which of those examples did you feel the most? Which resonated most deeply inside of you, and made your breath catch in your throat, just the way the protagonist's breath ought to be catching right about now?

In that instance, I was able to pull in metaphor to describe the mood of that room in a way that was just different enough to (hopefully) make you feel it much more deeply than you did when I simply said that the room was "tense" or "edgy." This sort of example becomes even more powerful when paired with other tools of descriptive writing—and, in my opinion, it's one of the crucial sentence-level things that takes a good story and makes it a transformative one. Many current award-winning novelists, like Maggie Stiefvater and Shannon Hale, are true masters of this, and reading their books and others can be a great way to pick apart techniques for use in your own writing.

Over the next couple of posts, I'm going to be breaking these ideas down into more digestible chunks and sharing blogs on metaphor, objective correlative, relationship-based description, and sensory awareness. I'll try to pull in lots of examples and writing exercises as well, since I know that's how I personally learn best. So pick up that pen (or keyboard) and join me for the ride!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description
Part 2: Building Strong Metaphors
Part 3: Describing Emotion Through Objective Correlatives
Part 4: Adding Sensory Details

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