Monday, November 1, 2010

Creating Word Pictures

I know a book is good, when I think back on what I read, and it plays out like a movie in my mind. The more the text is filled with word pictures and eloquent descriptions, the more colorful and detailed the mental movie becomes.
I will always remember the party at Gatsby's house in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The image of it almost sparkles in my mind.
Jane Eyre's childhood friend who dies from illness will always be an angelic face with a soft spirit in my visual archives thanks to Charlotte Bronte. And who could forget the Spirit-filled scene when Angel sang a hymn in front of a room of burley men at the climax of Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers?

Sometimes it is easy to get so caught up in hashing out the plot and making sure your “idea” is written down, that the fun part (for the reader, and maybe the writer) of writing, gets pushed aside. I personally, love figuring out a creative way to describe the actions, facial expressions, and environment of my fictitious story, in a way that will be unique enough to stand out in the reader's mind. It's almost like a challenge to my creative juices and gets them all bubbly and tumbling around in my writer's soul.
Here are some of my personal guidelines to create effective word pictures. I have learned them from reading, as well as in my own writing from some fabulous critiques.

1. Just 'cause it sounds good, doesn't mean it makes sense to everyone...an example from my own work... “The walls were thick as molasses.” I wanted to enhance the southern setting of my novel, but this sentence was a major stumbling block for more than a few of my critique group members...Walls and molasses don't have anything in common, so how could they form an effective picture? Now looking back, all I think about is ooey, gooey, dripping walls...not what I was going for!

2. You can get the imagery across without an overload of adjectives and frilly words...Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier is a great example of simple but effective word pictures. Here is one of her descriptions: “The woman's face was like an oval serving plate, flashing at times, dull at others.” My goodness, this is just a wonderfully simple image, but so effective (if you haven't read the book, the protagonist is a maid, so the use of common household objects in the author's metaphors and similies is very prevalent.)

3. Keep your eyes open...the world around us is great research!
There are a million facial expressions to choose from, a billion designs among creation by man and God. We all have an endless encyclopedia of materials to create vivid images in our readers' minds! I often find myself making odd faces while I write, trying to figure out exactly what expression I'm going for and how it feels. I think of words that come to mind with the look and feel of the expression, and then check it against a thesaurus and find some fabulous ways to describe the simplest of things.
 I particular love combining the expressions and creations research, to come up with a creation-induced feeling or impression of a character, or a personified nature/inanimate element. For example (from my own work again): "As we approached the place, a thorough adjusting of our attire became habit before entering through the narrow doors that yawned, “come in” and then snapped “if you dare” as they banged shut."

For me, and I am sure most of you, an author's creative imagery alongside their story-telling, keeps me reading and gives me permission to slip away into their world and delight in a new place with characters I long to get to know better.

Can you think of a book in particular which gripped you first and foremost by the author's ability to paint a picture with words?

11 comments:

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Hands down Peace Like a River.

I like your yawning doors too. And that was a great description in Girl With a Pearl...read it and enjoyed that one.

Wonderful tips.
~ Wendy

Julia M. Reffner said...

I have a few images from old stories that my husband still picks on me about.

Love the Gatsby party. That has to be one of my favorites, too.

Courting Morrow Little and The Preacher's Bride are some CBA reads from this year that have great descriptive passages. And I will never forget many scenes from John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath because of his wonderful descriptions.

Saumya said...

I'll never forget that scene from the Great Gatsby either. Description is something I am trying to get a grip on with my novel. I don't want to be "too" descriptive but you are so right about how great books paint pictures that we never forget. Great post! I am so excited to be a new follower :)

Pepper Basham said...

Angie,
LOVE the way words create pictures. And I'm a BIG fan of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.
I was reading Return of the King - the third book in the Lord of the Rings Triology, and am just blown away by the vast, and intrinsic descriptives used.
Here is a quote "There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach."

Oh, I want to write like that :-)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Great post, Angie! I'm currently trying to calm my descriptions down. They tend to get out of hand sometimes. :) Love your list!

Maggie Desmond-O'Brien said...

Favorite word pictures...hmmm. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, probably, but her description does go a little overboard at times. You've gotten me all excited to read Girl with a Pearl Earring now. It's on my bedside table, but I'll have to move it higher in my to-read list. =) Thanks for the post!

Donna Cummings said...

I had to laugh at you making "odd faces" -- I do the same, trying to devise new ways of expressing certain emotions. One day I decided to watch a BBC mini-series and write down the various gestures and expressions of the actors -- since they have to use their words AND their faces and movements to depict emotions, it was really helpful to see them in action. A little frustrating, too, since I saw some facial things that can't be translated. LOL

Angie said...

Donna- that's a great idea!! I am going to start watching t.v. with a notepad!
Maggie- It is an interesting read...lots of symbolism...I want to read it again and see if I can figure out more. Definitely read the book before seeing the movie.
Pepper- Great quote! My pregnancy brain could not endure reading Lord of the Rings right now...but I absolutely love British Lit!!
Saumya- Glad you are here!!
Julie- I have heard The Preacher's Bride all over the place! I need to read it! So many great reads out there...I feel sooo behind! :)

Pepper Basham said...

Angie,
I REALLY think we are major kindred spirits.
British lit too?
Sigh.
I love you sister-friend :-)

Angie said...

It is by far, my absolute favorite. I am a sucker for a story about the Tudors or from the Bronte sisters. I was reading Mary Stewart for a while...just because it was in a british setting...and they were fun mysteries. Also, I grew up on British children's books especially Enid Blyton. There is something about the language...
Anyway, I've "wasted" a lot of reading time stuck in the lives of Henry 8th's wives and post WWII characters in rural England...when I probably should have been reading the type of lit I want to write...Christian fiction!!

C. Michael McGannon said...

Good post. Very helpful for those of us who like to go off on wild, descriptive tangents.