The Art of Descriptive Writing
Concrete v Abstract Writing
Descriptive writing is all about detail. The details we pick out and the way we describe them makes the difference between a story that is flat and dull, or full of life and interest. When writing a descriptive scene, remember the senses: the things we can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Good writers are able to communicate very complex ideas simply by focussing on these concrete details, describing them with care and precision.
Abstract writing deals in general ideas, while concrete writing focuses on particular details. At an abstract level, we might talk about ‘organic life’. I’m not sure what image that conjures up for you – probably something different for each of us. I could refine that abstract idea by speaking of a ‘plant’. That narrows things down a little, but it’ still fairly abstract, How about a ‘tree’? We’re getting more concrete now, but we could go further. We could speak of an ‘oak tree’. Further still, we could identify this particular oak tree as ‘a sapling’.
Now we’re getting somewhere. We’ve gone from the very broad, abstract concept of organic life, right through to the concrete and particular example of an oak sapling. At this might start to describe our sapling in order to make it something you can clearly imagine – I could describe it as a ‘sickly specimen’ or as a ‘lithe and youthful tree’; I could describe its ‘satin skin, reptilian green’, or perhaps ‘the shy lime-green leaves unfurling at the tips of the top-most branches’ etc. Suddenly, the sapling is something we can sense – an image that is alive and present to us in a way that an abstract idea can never be.
It’s all too easy to burrow down in the abstract level when we
write about complex emotions and feelings – because abstractions
are safe. But for that reason they’re not very interesting,
certainly not as engaging as a concrete image we can visualise
and relate to.
Sometimes abstract language works well, and can even be quite
beautiful – e.g. we hear it a lot in religious contexts: ‘My soul
magnifies the Lord’, ‘I was overcome by the awesome love of God’,
‘In my youth I turned my back on God’, or some similar sentiment.
But what does any of that mean? To someone who hasn’t had the
kind of experience these statements are referring to, such
abstract language can easily sound like empty words. If we don’t
give our readers something concrete to engage with, they will
quickly lose interest, and the powerful ideas we have in mind
will fail to hit home the way we want them to.
If your writing is becoming too abstract, return to the senses to
give your story some colour, some body, some life! Use a simile
or a metaphor to provide the reader with a concrete image –
something they can see, smell, taste, or hear –to illustrate and
so make accessible the meaning you have in mind.
Show AND Tell
'...the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the
energetic and specific use of language.' Francine
Writing students are often told: ‘Show, don’t tell’. Good writing helps readers to form pictures in their minds, so instead of just telling the reader that Joe was ‘really mad’, we might show this by mentioning the pulsating vein at Joe’s temple, or the way he suddenly drops out of a conversation, or starts breathing loudly through his nose, or whatever.
This doesn’t mean there’s no place in good writing for lengthy passages of what Francine Prose calls ‘flat-out authorial narration’. Where would Dickens, Austen or Melville be otherwise? But when good writers do this there’s almost always some slight-of-hand going on. On the surface it might seem the writer is simply telling us the dry facts in a straightforward fashion, but something more subtle is usually going on. The trick is to tell in such a way that a particular mood, or an idea, or a sense of character is being conveyed at the same time.
The best descriptive writing, especially where emotion is concerned, is often very subtle or indirect. Rather than describing a character’s emotional state directly, an author might allude to it by providing a description of a setting, as seen from the character’s point of view. How we feel affects what we take notice of and how we feel about it – the same goes for your characters. Check out the following contrasting descriptions of the same scene, each conveying a very different state of mind in the same character:
The details picked out in each example offer a strong clue to the character’s state of mind. Also, notice how the subtle word choice affects the feel of each description. ‘Pale’ v ‘filtered’ light, ‘shuffled’ v ‘sauntered’, the ‘ugly smear’ on the fridge door compared to the ‘new timber bench tops’. This is all about the ‘energetic and specific use of language’ Francine Prose identifies with good writing. By building your vocabulary and selecting the very best word for the job, you’ll learn to show only those details that are relevant to the story, and tell in a way that is always revealing.
Simile and Metaphor
Both similes and metaphors present readers with an image, and so both are vitally important when it comes to descriptive writing. It’s important, though, that you understand the difference. Grammatically, similes draw a direct comparison between two things that are in some way alike, usually with the words ‘like’ or ‘as’:
‘Her life was crumbling like a sandcastle in the
‘His remaining hair, as insubstantial as fairy-floss, hung about his ears in clumps.’
Metaphors go a step further by actually identifying one thing as
‘An army of trees stood sentinel along the top of the
‘The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas’ (Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman).
Whereas similes are often used for describing superficial, observable similarities, metaphors tend to run deeper. By identifying two things that on the surface appear different, and which seem to bear no obvious likeness at all, metaphors compel us to look beyond the surface into the underlying meaning of things. The best metaphors are laden with significance, or as Orson Scott Card says, ‘Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.’
For further ideas and inspiration, follow the the link to Mark Nichol’s 20 Great Similes from Literature.