Creative writing involves a lot of description – of people, of places, of things, of what is happening and what has happened. Writers spend more of our time describing stuff than we’d probably care to admit.
Description isn’t easy, nor is it the most exciting part. True, particularly vivid and/or beautifully written passages can become our favorites as readers. But I bet those are the passages that the writer spent a good deal of time perfecting.
There is no quick and easy formula for making your descriptions better. Like a lot of things in life, practice is the only thing to improve your writing. However, here’s a tip that you can use to point your practice in the right direction.
Vivid descriptions are detailed descriptions. When describing someone or something, draw out a few concrete details about it. The more important the object or person is, the more details you should add. The goal is not to portray the object accurately, but to provide enough pieces for the reader to form their own image of what this object looks like.
To show you what I mean, let me tell you a story.
In Roanoke, Virginia, as soon as you get off the highway, there is Burger King. You know how chain restaurants go. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. This one had the same bland decor of a cheap motel.
I was returning to college after winter break. My dad and I stopped at that Burger King for lunch. It was Sunday afternoon, so the after-church crowd was thinning. Dad and I stepped in line behind a man whose attire gave new meaning to the phrase “Sunday best.”
This large black man wore a white suit with navy pinstripes, a white fedora, and shiny white dress shoes. He had chunky gold and silver rings on all of his fingers. He carried a cane that was painted the same glossy white as his shoes. He didn’t need the cane from what I remember. It was all for show.
When my dad tells this story, he describes this man as “superfly”. For my part, I put this outfit on a mob boss character I wrote about that semester. This mob boss also happened to be a hamster, but that’s beside the point.
Are the above descriptions perfect? No. For the sake of length, I compressed this story down to its essentials. I could have added things like the weather, how long the line was, and what the man ordered.
I also stuck with one sense – sight. I wanted to show that, while a picture is worth a thousand words, it only takes a few dozen to complete one. Choosing the right words, though, can be tricky, and is something I’ll likely cover in a future post.
If I was going to revise this scene, I’d probably add that it was a cold, drizzly Sunday. To incorporate the other senses, I’d add kitchen noises coming from behind the counter, the fact that the floors were sticky with soda syrup, and the smell of grease mixed with too much Pinesol.
How do you use details to make your stories come alive? Do you have a story of how something you saw or experienced in real life inspired a character, a setting, or a plot? Share in the comments below.