Over the next few weeks, I want to focus on the craft of writing emotionally resonant scenes and stories. What does that mean? I want to give you the tools you need to not only convey the actions of a story, but connect those actions to the emotions of your characters and, by extension, the emotions of the reader. (Thanks to Courtney L for the topic of this blog post series.)
To kick off this week, we’re going to look at the details of prose. The biggest issue I see as an editor reading books and helping authors to build more emotion into their scenes is a lack of description that connects to the character. This leads to flat description that readers don’t really care about—and characters whose emotions are a mystery.
There are two potential issues at play here.
#1: You may be lacking description altogether.
#2: The description is there, it’s just not working.
Fortunately, both of these problems can be fixed.
When Description is Missing
If this is the case, my starting advice would be to practice description. Focus on it. Try to tell a story with as little dialogue as possible and use description to carry it. Accumulate powerful verbs and adjectives with which to construct strong descriptions. Read poetry and pay attention to its uses of imagery and theme. Write your own poetry and descriptive prose.
After that, the trick is to weave that descriptive skill into full stories without going overboard and with intention toward the story and theme you’re trying to convey. In addition to what we’re going to cover today to that end, I’ll link you to a post I wrote a few years ago about writing vivid, effective description.
When Description Isn’t Working
If you have description but your readers aren’t getting the picture, the most common culprit is that you’re not connecting your description closely enough to your character. This is a matter of character voice and action (which we’ll get to next week), and it requires a firm knowledge of both your characters and the world they live in—plus the willingness to finesse your word choice to perfect over almost-perfect.
As a preface, just because your description isn’t connecting doesn’t mean it’s bad description. Your prose may be stunning and paint a beautiful picture! But if it doesn’t tie in with the characters and/or story, your reader isn’t likely to care (unless you’re Tolkien). Don’t describe an ornate banister just for the sake of describing an ornate banister, even if it’s a stunningly gorgeous ornate banister.
Your descriptions should reflect your character’s emotions, worldview, history, and interests/vocation. If the character wouldn’t care, neither will the reader. If the character does care, the reader is much more likely to also care, even if the subject of description is something the reader would ordinarily be bored by or never notice themselves.
Not sure which problem you’re dealing with? Book a sample line edit with me and I’ll diagnose the first few pages of your story!
Vocation & Interests
If your reader has no interest in ornate banisters or woodcarving, but your character is a woodcarver who discovers something about the home he’s in by the carving on the banister, you can make the banister ten times more interesting just by highlighting the character’s cultural knowledge. What does that information mean for the story? What does it mean to the character? Is the banister carved in the designs of royalty even though the home belongs to a simple merchant? Are they employed by the king directly, granting the main character a connection he needs to accomplish his goals? Or perhaps the banister is hand-carved, granting the main character an opportunity to discuss something within his wheelhouse with the owner of the house.
Description in a scene can do one of two things when it comes to character emotion. It can either reinforce what your character is feeling, or contrast with those feelings.
As a cliché example, a rainy setting might reinforce a character’s grief or depression. The teardrops may look like (or mingle with) tears, the rain clouds may be as heavy as the weight on your character’s shoulders, the glistening sidewalks may shine like the tears in your character’s eyes… etc. etc. (You’ll generally want your metaphors to be more creative than off-the-cuff blog post examples. ;) )
As an alternate option—which can be just as interesting, if not more so—the setting might be at odds with your character’s emotions. If the character’s mother has just died and the sunshine yellow walls seem to mock her grief, or if this is the first time the color hasn’t made her smile, or if perhaps they comfort her with the thought that her mother is now experiencing eternal light, any of those could provide great insight on your character’s emotions and worldview and the way they’re processing this grief—allowing the reader to process it alongside them.
Description can be a great way to sneak in backstory, as well. Let’s look at that yellow wallpaper again. How might a character’s grief over the loss of her mother be heightened if her mother helped her put up the wallpaper in the first place? Does it bring back memories, then, of how the character and her mother used to enjoy sharing projects? Or perhaps they found it difficult to work together, and your character feels guilty now for not appreciating that time together. Perhaps the walls are a reminder of that bitter relationship and your character would rather just forget.
The emotional combinations are endless, and any one of them can grant great insight into your character’s past. Not only are memories powerful, but they often tie to one another, which means one piece of present-day description could link to some other bit of backstory that appears at first blush to be disconnected. Or something your character may have even forgotten about in their conscious memory until now.
What if your main character thinks back to putting up wallpaper with her mother and suddenly remembers that the mother was acting odd for the whole project. What if she remembers her mother sealing something behind the wallpaper and is suddenly compelled to rip off the paper and find out what her mother left for her?
Past and present can be dramatically tied together through use of setting and description.
Description can be a great way to reveal your character’s mindset and worldview, especially when the setting is presenting some sort of obstacle to the character’s goal.
If your character is walking through grass up to their knees, that might not only itch and sting their legs, but also hinder a hasty getaway from the riders chasing them. On the other hand, it may present a great hiding place. How your character responds, what they focus on, and their general tone in describing their surroundings should all reflect the way they think, and this will make the setting and scenario more real to your readers.
One character might describe that tall grass with a tone of complaint, using the most negative terms in their vocabulary. Another might compare it to the waves in the sea, either basking in its beauty or pining for the seashore they miss. Either provides a strong visual impression of the setting and a strong impression of the character and their thought process.
Whatever element(s) of character you highlight with your description, descriptive prose ought to serve a purpose. To reveal backstory, to push the narrative forward, to reveal your character’s emotions or interests or worldview, to pose a challenge, etc. Description that only looks pretty won’t connect with your reader (9 times out of 10), though beautiful and intentional prose is part of creating description that does effectively connect (and I’ll talk about that more in a later post). So keep these questions in mind as you write and edit:
- What does this description do?
- How is this description active?
- How does it reflect the narrator providing the description in the first place?
Those three questions will bring you much closer to building description that furthers your story and connects with your readers.
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