Narration may be the bread and butter of writing (see previous post on narration and description in Show, Don’t Tell), but description is the sprinkles that make it fairy bread. (If you’ve never tried fairy bread, you’re in for a treat. Seriously, go look it up [link].)
Descriptive language (or in my previous post, “description”) is seriously underrated. It’s one of the best tools you can use to increase your word count and improve the experience of reading for your audience. If you don’t include descriptive language in your writing, it will sound monotonous and boring and have little life in it. So today we’re going to look at ways you can improve your writing by using descriptive language.
One of the first things that comes to mind for me when thinking about using descriptive language is using it for an effect. The effect is usually to create a visual, but the ultimate goal is to impress the reader. You want your reader to be thinking about your story, novel or poem long after they’ve finished reading, and you can achieve that through descriptive language.
Poetry especially needs descriptive language, as you want to create as much of a punch as you can for your reader in as little time as possible. You don’t have 90,000 words to tell us about a character and take us on an adventure with them. You have descriptive and figurative language to guide us through a one or more minute-long journey through the unconscious mind. But you need descriptive language to do it.
(Figurative language is the use of metaphors, similes, metonyms, euphemisms, hyperbole, personification, onomatopoeia, synecdoche, etc to evoke emotions and provide a clearer picture for the reader. But descriptive language can also do this!)
Let’s take a look:
(Content warnings for graphic violence and guns)
I once read a piece of writing that was about one character pressing a gun to another character’s head and shooting them. I can’t remember the context, but I remember the ending of the last sentence: “…and shot him.” I remember it for all the wrong reasons. I remember it because I hated it so much, and I thought (and still think) that it was so bad, and I would never write that badly. It spurred me into becoming a better writer because I knew then what was wrong with it, and I’ve known all these years how to improve my writing so that I never write this badly ever.
The problem with it is the classic Show, Don’t Tell (see my previous blog post on this). I’m not married to this advice, but in some instances it bears repeating. You want to show (use descriptive language) instead of tell (use narration). If it’s really that bad (and it is), how can we make this sentence fragment better?
By describing what’s happening.
Instead of saying, “She pointed the gun at him and shot him,” we should say, “She pressed the muzzle of the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger.” Saying “pulled the trigger” gives us a better picture of what’s happening than just saying “she shot him”. That only tells us something. It doesn’t show us what’s happening.
Want to make it even better? Add some more description.
She pressed the muzzle of the gun to his temple, where beads of sweat formed before they slid down the side of his face. He stank of the pungent odour of fear, and a puddle formed where his knees touched the ground. He murmured into his closed fists. The sound of his blubbering filled the empty warehouse. The skin depressed where she pressed her gun into it, now slippery with sweat.
“Pathetic,” she said, and pulled the trigger. Blood shot out in a spray that splattered onto the concrete. A second after the shot rang out, he slumped to the floor, and that was it.
The great thing about writing is that you can come with a million different ways to say the same thing. One nit-picky thing I hate is when someone dies in a novel, and the narration is something like, “And he knew no more.” Of course he didn’t, he’s dead. It’s overdone to the point of cliche, and if you’re using it, stop it. Find something else. Describe something. That’s the point of this post: describe what’s happening. Paint a picture with your words. Give us something to imagine. Use description and figurative language to show us what’s happening. Go wild!
One thing description can do is finish a sentence on a powerful image. Instead of describing a man standing on the side of the road, thinking about his life and his choices, describe it.
Patrick stood in the field, thinking about how happy he was that he had a new job.
Patrick’s new job could only bring good things for him. A career, more money, a way to impress his dates. But what it really brought for him was a sense of pride. He stood at the edge of the field that had come to represent his dreams, watching as the sun crested over the hill and bathed him a golden glow.
See how much better that is??? I came up with that in 30 seconds. I’m a genius. I’m so good. My writing is amazing. If you want your writing to be amazing, mosey on over to my write-treon and sign up. That way you can get one-on-one time with me so that I can help you make your writing dreams ~come true. It’s only $5 a month!
Also! My newest book Daughter Of The Valley is out for pre-order! It comes out in 5 days so you can pre-order it now or wait until then, your choice! Eeeeeee, so exciting.
And the last question: what should you be doing instead of writing? Watching this cool as shit video by Jackson Bird about some of his experiences as a trans man.