The Power of Descriptive Language

When it comes to descriptive language in fiction, some authors revel in rich, detailed descriptions, while others prefer a minimalist approach. But most writers agree that well-crafted descriptions, no matter their length, build worlds that come alive in our hearts and minds, creating an immersive experience for the reader.

I love this quote by Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

In my mind, this advice reaches beyond the standard catch phrase of “show, don’t tell.” It teaches us to imagine ourselves in our characters’ circumstances, to see what they see, feel what they feel. To draw on personal experience, tune in to every emotion, engage every sense. Then, after sifting through that wealth of data, to capture and re-create those circumstances by putting words to page.

Descriptive Language Pic

Think of your favorite novels, the ones where you’re left blinking in surprise at your real-life surroundings when you finally put the book down. Whether the story took place in your own hometown or on an alien world, the author’s skill with building and conveying the setting doubtless played a role in drawing you in.

What types of descriptive language are most effective? What techniques? Are adjectives becoming a thing of the past, or should you use as many as you want? I suspect that every writer will give you a different answer. It can be dangerous to get caught up in the game of what’s “okay” and what isn’t: counting adjectives and adverbs, using words other than “said,” or agonizing over whether you’re allowed to describe what a character is wearing. So much depends on personal taste, style, and instincts.

Don’t ever stop honing your craft. Find critique partners. Always do your research. But please allow yourself some freedom of expression. The debate that’s currently raging in the literary world about what authors are and are not allowed to write about is a sure path to self-doubt and creative stagnation.

Maybe your description of a spaceship’s corridors will be sterile and crisp, with clipped phrases and stark language to convey the coldness and loneliness of space. Or maybe you’re writing an epic space romance where the main character waxes poetic on the infinite beauty of the stars.

At the end of the day, your goal is to create an experience for the reader that is both visceral and vicarious. How you achieve that is the real trick, as any writer well knows.

There is no perfect way to write. But I will close with a favorite passage from one of my absolute favorite books, The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud:

“Long gray hair lay thick and lush across an ivory pillow. It cradled a gaunt white face, the skin flowing like wax beneath our candlelight. It was the face of a woman; an aged, wrinkled woman—bony, with a nose curved thin and sharp like the beak of some bird of prey. The lips were closed tight; the eyes, too.”

In this one short passage I count 13 adjectives (14 if you count curved as an adjective vs. a verb) and two similes. And it’s freaking fantastic.

Enough said.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

 

Looking Back on Published Novel #1

Novel 1

Here are 10 things, in retrospect, that I think/feel about my first novel, and/or how my first book makes me feel about publishing in general. How’s THAT for a random lead-in for a top 10 list?

  1. When someone tells me that they’ve picked up The Next Door Boys, I cringe a little. I didn’t know how to write. I was given almost no edits. I only HOPE that the reader gives me another chance so they can see that I got better! (Every time I hear “got/get/getting/feel better” I think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I don’t see this as a problem, more like a delightful brain-quirk).
  2. There is nothing like getting that first big YES – I don’t care where or who it comes from. SOMEONE LIKES YOUR IDEA ENOUGH TO PUT MONEY AND TIME AND EFFORT BEHIND IT! That yes never gets old, BTW. And if it does, you should probably step back for a reality/gratitude check. (That sounds way more judgy than I mean for it to, but I’m leavin’ it anyway).
  3. Boy, did I have no idea how little most authors make. And by most, I mean about 95% of authors. (I’m going to exclude category romance authors here b/c their sales are distributed slightly, but just slightly, more evenly)
  4. My first royalty check (for ebook pre-sales) was 42.00. I was still thrilled. My second check for about 1250, was actually less thrilling because it made me realize how little an hour I made on those words.
  5. The characters in my first novel will always hold a special place in my heart, even though I wish with the power of a thousand fiery suns that I could re-edit/re-work the language. The lesson I’ve learned the hard way again and again is this: DON’T RUSH YOUR PROJECT.
  6. I’ll be honest and say that I knew nothing about contracts and also that I would have probably signed away my life to see my book on the shelf. Fortunately, I wasn’t asked to do that.
  7. My first novel was not the first of my novels I saw on Barnes bookshelves, it was one I co-wrote with Nyrae Dawn. My first novel saw the inside of LDS bookstores, and a few Barnes and Nobles in Utah. I lived in Alaska at the time, so…
  8. The impatience to get a second book of a series out in the world, is a force to be reckoned with.
  9. I wish I’d have stood up for myself more in edits, timelines, etc. I wish I’d have spent more time on my novel BEFORE I submitted it for publication. I wish I’d have gotten an agent before I signed my first contract (Only not my first agent, an agent who knows what they’re doing).
  10. As much as I wish I could tweak the inside of my first novel, I do still love the outside. And the longer I’m in publishing, the more I realize that a good cover is something to be cherished, because authors rarely have much say in the final version that comes out into the world.

So, this has been fun reminiscing. I wish I’d have gone to conferences and found more writing partners and friends BEFORE I signed that first contract. I wish I’d have dared to have bigger goals before that first book came out. I wished that I had sat down at some point to see where I wanted my writing to go, rather than being so consumed by the story. At the same time? I do miss the days when I could write with reckless abandon, without hope or understanding of  the heartbreak and/or work that would come after. That being said, I wouldn’t change what I do for anything.

Happy Writing!

~ Jolene Perry

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 6.17.25 PMJolene Perry is an author of young adult novels who was recently transplanted from Alaska to Colorado. She now climbs red rocks, rather than cold, grey ones. Her latest novel, ALL THE FOREVER THINGS, is a 2017 Whitney Finalist, and her teenage heart is happy.

You can find Jo on her website at jolenebperry.com. But at this time of year, most of her time goes to her duties as Chair of the Storymakers Writing Conference, held in Utah each May. And for that community, she is grateful.