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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Dazzling Descriptions

Please welcome guest blogger C.L. Wilson

Books are a unique form of entertainment in that they actually use none of our senses and yet, when effectively written, stimulate them all. Solely with words, authors can paint vibrant pictures, evoke genuine emotion, and set so vivid a tone that the story unfolding on the pages becomes every bit perceivable and sensually stimulating as any other entertainment medium—even more so because words can do a much better job of invoking all five senses rather than relying solely on sight and sound.

Never is that more important than when writing stories that includes creatures, capabilities, or settings that do not exist or our contemporary reality.

The first place to start when learning to write description is with the most basic building blocks of observation: the five human senses, sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. Your job as a writer is to invoke as many of those senses as necessary to set your readers in a scene, to vividly draw actions and events in such a way that the reader can connect on a sensory level with your book.

In order to write vivid description, you need vivid words and active, energetic verbs. Choices such as “was,” “there,” and “it” won’t cut it. Be specific. Be detailed. Be vivid. Infuse your writing with emotion, action, and energy. (www.thesaurus.com is one of any description writer’s best online friends!)

NOTE: I am not an “is-slaughterer” advocating the ruthless elimination of every form of the verb “to be” in your manuscript. Sometimes “is” is a fine choice! Just use it sparingly.

Perhaps even more important than using active, vivid, specific words, however, is using the details and the words your POV character would use.

What your character sees – and how true that view is – can be hugely revealing. For instance, if you are writing about a narcissistic self-delusional character, how that character sees the world should be very telling. I would imagine he would think all people are looking at him, admiring him, noting his fine clothes and enviable good looks. The world, his world, would revolve around him. And the words he chooses would be self-aggrandizing. The same scene, viewed from an unhappy social worker’s eyes would be remarkably different. Rather than noticing how people are noticing her, she might see the homeless person huddled in the corner, the sadness in a stranger’s face, the child hawking drugs on the corner, the friendless hustle of a downtown city street.

It is vital that you choose the words and the details that the POV character (not you, the author) would notice. Use the slang and the intonation the character would use when speaking. Use only words the character would be likely to know and use him/herself. Anything unfamiliar to the character (a strange new objection, a stranger) might be of great interest or might be casually overlooked – it all depends on what your story and your character require.

One of my favorite descriptive scenes is from Scott Westerfeld’s Midnighters: The Secret Hour. The premise of the book is that for certain people – those born exactly at the stroke of midnight – there are twenty-five hours in the day. At the stroke of midnight, time stops and only the midnighters (the children born at midnight) and certain creatures that live in this time can roam in the blue twilight of the midnight hour.

In this scene, Jessica (who does not know she is a midnighter) wakes at night and goes outside to find the world lit by blue glowing light and the air filled with what appear to be shimmering, radiant diamonds, each no bigger than a tear. Those diamonds, it turns out, are raindrops hanging in the sky in a world where time has stopped.

In a daze, she stepped out into the suspended rain. The drops kissed her face coolly, turning into water as she collided with them. They melted instantly, dotting her sweatshirt as she walked, wetting her hands with water no colder than September rain. She could smell the fresh scent of rain, feel the electricity of recent lightning, the trapped vitality of the storm all around her. Her hairs tingled, laughter bubbling up inside her.

But her feet were cold, she realized, her shoes soaking. Jessica knelt down to look at the walk. Motionless splashes of water dotted the concrete, where raindrops had been frozen just as they’d hit the ground. The whole street shimmered with the shapes of splashes, like a garden of ice flowers.

There are all sorts of sensory delights in the above two paragraphs. Sights, smells, tastes, the feel of electricity making hairs rise. Sound (the utter silence) is mentioned in a previous passage. This one scene alone (all 3 pages, not just the two paragraphs above) does an amazing job of capturing in perfect, vivid language the image of a world frozen in the midst of a rainstorm and the wondrous alien beauty of the midnight hour.

What are some of your favorite descriptive passages? Either from your own works or books you love? What made those descriptions so vivid / impactful to you?

C.L. Wilson is a NY Times, USA Today & Publisher’s Weekly bestselling author of fantasy romance. She loves reading, writing, and torturing her characters mercilessly. When not working, she enjoys relaxing with her family in sunny Florida and daydreaming of a world where people exercise in their sleep and chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream is a fat burning food.

Crown of Crystal Flame
Book 5 of the Tairen Soul series

A song of Love won her heart.
A Song of Darkness haunted her soul.
A Song in the Dance would seal her fate.

Seers had long foreseen an extraordinary destiny for Ellysetta Baristani. Already she had won the heart of the Fey King-the magnificent Rain, ever her ally, eternally her love. She had saved the offspring of the magical tairen and fought beside her legendary mate against the armies of Eld. But the most powerful-and dangerous-Verse of her Song had yet to be sung. As the final battle draws nigh and evil tightens its grip upon her soul-will Ellysetta secure the world for Light or plunge it into Darkness for all eternity? As she and Rain fight for each other, side by side, will they find a way to complete their truemate bond and defeat the evil High Mage of Eld before it's too late, or must they make the ultimate sacrifice to save their world?


C.L. Wilson said...

Hi FF&P! Thanks for having me today :)

Alexis Morgan said...

I love some of the imagery that J R Ward uses--two in particular come to mind. Vishous is on the football field and "Stair Mastered it" to the top of the stadium.
Another is when Zsadist realizes that he's like a screen with emotions just passing through and only anger catching. Such an amazing description!

Anonymous said...

I had the perfect passage from Leviathan to share, but I picked up my Kindle to get it and it has an Error message. I can't get it to boot and I have to call. :( I'll come back someday to share it if I get it running.
Great post!!

C.L. Wilson said...

@Alexis - great examples of excellent imagery from a strong POV. I <3 JR Ward's books!

Ciara - would love to read it. I'll be here all day *gg*