The key to writing that is descriptive is choosing very specific words, phrases and metaphors.
Let’s see how it’s done.
Here’s an example from the novel The Vagabond King.
The main character is Chris, a sixteen year old boy, who has run away from home and is spending the night in a stranger’s house. He is afraid.
Now, the author could have said:
I could not go home and, that night I was afraid.
There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s just boring and mundane and exciting as tofu.
It’s lazy writing and, often times, new writers just leave it at that.
But let’s take it one step further. Let’s physically describe what being afraid might look like.
I could not go home and, while I lay on the floor, hiding beneath the blanket, in the darkness I was afraid.
OK, this is better. We get the idea.
He’s laying on a floor…not a comfortable place. They must not have had a bed for him.
Hmm, sounds like a makeshift situation. This implies uncertainty which is an ingredient of fear.
He’s also hiding under the blanket in the darkness. This is what children do. So it implies vulnerability which is another ingredient of fear.
And then, just to assure the reader that the character is afraid we have the statement…drum roll please… I was afraid.
So now the reader gets, not just the statement that the character is afraid, but the physical image as well.
But, yawn, it really doesn’t jump off the page. No one will ever remember that, will they?
Well, descriptive writing is memorable writing. It’s writing that keeps the reader reading for more wonderful images.
So let’s try it one more time.
Instead the author actually wrote this:
I could not go home and, while I lay on the floor, hiding beneath the blanket, in the darkness above me the crescent moon, the double edged smile of the universe, dangled like a sword upon a silver thread.
Using the specific image of the crescent moon conjures up thoughts of both scimitars and smiles at the same time. This implies uncertainty. It could have been just a moon, any old moon. But it’s not. It’s a crescent moon.
He then elaborates upon this image by using the phrase “double edged smile”.
It’s not just any smile, it’s a double edged smile. It could be an evil grin or a welcoming beam…or both at the same time. Who knows?
Again, we compound the idea of uncertainty.
He elaborates on this even more by using the phrase “dangled (not hung, but dangled which makes it much more precarious) like a sword upon a silver thread”. This implies that at any minute, any second, he might meet his fate, whatever fate that is.
He doesn’t know. But that’s what it’s like to be afraid, isn’t it?
Why Writers Fail…And How Not To
The words and images you need for good descriptive writing won’t come in the first draft. They may not even be there in the fifth.
But they will come…eventually.
You just have to keep writing and rewriting and honing that blade until it is as sharp as a sword dangling upon a silver thread.