Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Digging for Jewels: the power of original description

At the risk of sounding like a snob, I have a confession to make. I adore literary writing.

Literary books often get a bad rap, because let’s face it, they can be dense and slow-moving. But if you can get past that, you’ll find the writing often sings with fresh and unexpected imagery and beautiful turns of phrase.

Searching for the right adjective, the right word is like digging in the sand. Easy just to shovel up a spadeful and fling it in the bucket without thinking too hard about it. It takes an artist to dig for the treasure in every turn of phrase, every description, refusing to settle for the stale or mundane.

Nothing turns me off a book quicker than overused turns of phrase. To me it shows a lack of care for craftsmanship. And if you, the author, don’t care about the words you choose, why should I invest in those words as a reader?

Here are some ideas for keeping your descriptions fresh.

1. Eliminate clichés.
Clichés have become cliché for a reason. When first coined, these turns of phrase were considered so dazzlingly original, so apt, that they became wildly popular. Now they’re overused because successive generations of writers have been too lazy to reach for their own original and apt expressions.

Read through your manuscript. Have you used any clichés like these? Thin as a rail. Neat as a pin. Fresh as a daisy. Clear as crystal.

Or these? Her hands were cold as ice. His heart beat like a drum.


Get out your pruning shears. Lop those suckers out of your manuscript. Now it’s time to reinvigorate your descriptions.

2. Brainstorm alternatives.
Okay, so rails are thin. What else is thin? Don’t censor yourself. As fast as you can, write a list of a dozen alternative ideas.

Now have a look back over what you’ve written. Do any of these alternate descriptions have additional shades of meaning that may suggest something else about your character, other than mere physical thinness?

For example – Thin as a dandelion stem. A dandelion is a pretty weed. Could you imagine using this description for an emotionally fragile young girl who, although fresh and lovely, sees herself as worthless?

What about this? Thin as a kite string. A kite string snaps with brisk energy. This description would be fitting for a playful boy.

Or this. Thin as the leather-bound ledger she kept on her desk. I’m picturing a woman who is precise and particular, and somewhat lacking in humor.

See how this sort of imagery enriches your writing? Suddenly your description is doing double-duty. You’ve harnessed an obvious physical characteristic and used it to give subtle insights into character.

3. Make new connections.
When describing an object or setting, ask yourself what the image reminds you of. The obvious parallels are always the first to spring to mind. Shadows reached across the path like fingers. The wind moaned in the eaves. Now think again. What unexpected associations can you conjure?

Shadow and moon-fall braided themselves across the path.

A bossy wind scolded at his window, clucking and fussing amongst the leaves. Can you picture the wind as an outspoken housewife?

In Katy Popa’s beautiful book, The Feast of Saint Bertie, she describes the “marigold flames” consuming her protagonist’s house. Comparing something so ravaging to a flower is out-of-the-ordinary. But suddenly, through those words, we see the fire as a thing of unexpected beauty. Can’t you just picture the vivid orange-yellow of those flames?

One of my favorite examples is from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. He describes a person sitting on the step in a pair of  “decomposing shoes.”

He could have described the shoes as worn-out, moldering, wet, smelly, or falling-apart. Instead he selected one unusual word that sums up all of these things in a powerful word-picture. What’s more, this one detail gives us instant insight into the character, revealing more about them than could have been achieved in a page of more mundane description.

4. Read poetry.
In a poem, every word counts. Therefore, the poet chooses each word with care, often creating word pictures of startling originality and simplicity as a result.

How about these beautiful lines by poet Brook Emery, taken from her poem “Night”?

Expectation stitches me to the dark, makes silence that can be touched.

During the day rain falls as light, at night it falls as sound

Like a fish twisting against the line
I’m drawn into the sharp transactions of the light.

As you read poetry, you’ll train yourself to see the world in new ways, forming new associations that may not previously have occurred to you.

5. Grow your vocabulary.
Be intentional about it. The best way to do this is by reading widely and recording new words in a notebook. If you come across a word you don’t know, look it up. Write it down. The more words you know, the more you shades of nuance you’ll have access to in your writing.

But do all of this with one important caveat. Namely:

6. Don’t fall prey to purple prose.
The true power of literary description lies in its simplicity and restraint. One truly apt word, one lean and carefully crafted sentence is more powerful than a dozen overused phrases.

Aussie writer Tim Winton is a master at this. Here are some of his lines from “Dirt Music” and “The Turning”:

The girl’s “lank blond hair fretted in the wind.”

The man’s “crow’s feet like knife cuts.”

The fire “sucked the air from the room and danced before him like a thought just out of reach.”

The blood “runs thin as copper wire in his veins.”

His breath “aglow like a coal in his chest.”

The night is “hot and salted with stars.”

Your turn. What beautiful turns of phrase have you uncovered recently?

Image courtesy of

Karen Schravemade lives in Australia. When she's not chasing after two small boys or gazing at her brand-new baby girl, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website, on Twitter or getting creative over at her mummy blog.


Debra E. Marvin said...

I love these kind of descriptions - ones that make you stop and appreciate them. But - and i'm playing devil's advocate here - I had a comment on a scoresheet and have seen it on posts about craft... 'don't take the reader out of the story', or 'don't draw attention to your words or your skill as an author'.

That surprised me. Have any of you heard that argument before? Seemed pretty lame to me :)

As writers we love words and word pictures. Of course anything can be overdone.

It is also valuable to have a good critique partner who can find those cliches that you can no longer see. Sometimes I have to do a read-through with just that mind set - a search for the common and cliche.

wonderful post Karen!

Julia M. Reffner said...

I love this post. I have to admit I love literary fiction, too, and its not very popular to admit that anymore. You have a beautiful voice for literary fiction, Karen. I love our descriptions. (I have to admit I'm one of the few that doesn't mind a book being slow if the writing is exceptional. I think sometimes we've lost the ability to enjoy the slow things in life. Of course, pacing is important, too.)

Jeanne T said...

Wonderful post, Karen. I especially liked the example you shared that turned a simile into a word picture--about the "shadow and moon-fall braided themselves across the path."

I'll have to do some thinking about what you've shared and come back with an example. Off to take the kiddos to school. :)

Kathleen Popa said...

Thank you for mentioning my book, Karen. What great stuff in this post!

The Book Thief is a wonderful book. My favorite line in the book is the last one, which I'll keep to myself for the sake of your readers who now can't wait to read it.

And I now must read Tim Winton.

Mary Vee Writer said...

One judge recommended I take my work to a literary level by adding the very descriptive suggestions you mentioned today. I never really liked reading poetry. It seemed a waste of time. But, um, you gave a good reason for me to start.
Thanks, Karen.
What a helpful post.

Susan Anne Mason said...

Wonderful suggestions, Karen! Some writers have a gift for turning a beautiful phrase. Now and then, I get one of those! LOL.


Sarah Forgrave said...

Wow, what a rich and challenging post, Karen. I'll admit to lazy writing once in a while, but my critique partners never let me get away with it for long. :) I love your unique ideas of how to freshen up our descriptions.

Iola said...

One of my favourites is from Cooking the Books by Bonnie Calhoun, in which she describes a characters as being "from the shallow end of the gene pool".

I've also just finished reading The Breath of Dawn by Kristen Heitzmann, and was really impressed by her use of language. It releases on 1 November, and I really recommend it for those who love Christian Romantic Suspense!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Debra, you're SO right! We don't want to pull the reader out of the story. That's why the last point is so important - don't use purple prose. To me one simple, original phrase that flows with the setting and characters is less intrusive than a clumsy or hackneyed description that's been used a thousand times before.

The best writers can do this and make it seem effortless and natural. Once it starts sounding forced, you're better off cutting those descriptions altogether. Excellent point.

And I like it when people play devil's advocate. :-) Good way to start an interesting discussion. Thanks for your thoughts!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Julia, it sounds like we have very similar tastes. :-)

Jeanne, thank you! I'm glad you liked that example. I'd love to hear what you have to share if you get the chance!

Katy, thanks for stopping by! Ooooh yes, The Book Thief is amazing. I love that last line too. Markus Zusak surprised me with his originality on every page. (And have I mentioned how much I loved YOUR book?) :-)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

.... and yes, Katy, you must read Tim Winton! One caveat: he's gritty. But the writing... oh, my. I think you'd love him.

Mary, you know, I've never been a huge poetry fan. A lot of it is so obscure that I don't think I'm smart enough to understand it. Or maybe I just think too literally about things that aren't supposed to be taken as literal. But each poet has a different style, and I've found some I really, really like.

Still... I'm not the type to read a whole anthology in a single sitting. I just dip my toes in every now and then and enjoy the beauty of the words.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Susan, isn't it the best feeling when something magical flies from your fingertips, and you have no idea where it came from? Makes all the hard work worthwhile.

Sarah, thanks! I'll admit to lazy writing too. I still have to watch for cliches. They constantly pop up like little weeds. Hopefully the longer we're at this, we'll have more flowers than weeds. :-)

Iola, I have to admit I haven't read any Kristen Heitzmann yet - and I've heard such great things about her! Definitely on my TBR list. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post! Bookmarking this one. Thanks.