Paint a Pretty Picture
Basics for Beginners Vol. 2
By Average Joe
So, the big ol' scary writing world leaves you undaunted, eh? Still want to write? Skills not quite up to par? I know how you feel. There are a few things you'll need to know, though, if you want your writing to improve.
If you've read the previous installment of "Basics for Beginners," you already know about the two most important books any writer could have: a dictionary, and a thesaurus. If not, then-wait, I just told you. These two books will come in handy in this lesson.
So, how do people write such good descriptions? Well, mostly it's because they've got a pretty good grasp on the language they're writing in, and have developed a large vocabulary through reading voluminous tomes (Reference your dictionary on those last two words. You may or may not want to use them sometime. Do this kind of stuff a lot. You'll learn new words.). So they know how the words interrelate.
Now you say to yourself, "Hey, I know how words go together. I can make sentences that my grammar checker says that there's nothing wrong with." But then you find yourself reading your work, and it sounds kind of plain. Like a cake without frosting. How to fix it?
"How to fix it," indeed.
Step 1: Observe Your Subject
This is how painters get started. They just sit there and stare at whatever subject it is that they're supposed to paint. You, being an author, are a painter of words. Paper (or a computer screen, but that sounds less romantic) is your canvas, and you have to fill it with rich and vibrant color, expressing to the reader exactly what you mean.
So, let's take a little field trip, shall we, class? First stop; let's take a look at a tree. Yes, that one will do. One of the biggest questions you can ask yourself is: "What do you see?"
"I see a tree." Yes, but a tree can be so many things. It can be a palm tree, it can be an oak tree, it can be an evergreen-there are countless types of trees out there. If you were to say that you saw a tree, and you said exactly that to someone, they would probably not envision in their mind what you saw. For them to see what you saw, you would have to be more specific.
"I see a tall eucalyptus tree." This is a little better. If you know what a eucalyptus tree is, and what it looks like, you don't really need any more information. But not everyone has seen a eucalyptus tree. There are people that have never seen one before. So let's try to add descriptions that just about everyone can understand.
"I see a tall, slender eucalyptus tree. Its polished white trunk swirls in a gentle spiral upward to its loosely leafed canopy. Patches of papery bark cling to it. Its narrow branches stay close to the center, holding up the long, narrow, pale green leaves." Whoa, there. Perhaps we've gone a little overboard, but at least you know what a eucalyptus tree looks like now, no?
This strategy can also apply to people, places, and things other than trees. You can take a look at a building, and describe how it seems to dominate surrounding buildings. You can observe a car, and see how low to the ground it is. These are all ideas that you want to convey to the person that's looking at your painti-er, reading your writing.
This brings us to
Step 2: Preparing Your Paints
When you write, your words need to convey as much meaning as they possibly can. This means that some words may have to take on more than one meaning or that some words may have to be specialized. This is where your two wonderful, marvelous, absolutely invaluable books come into play.
Let's take a table, this time. Firstly, we'll describe some of its attributes. It's made of wood. It's low. It's a coffee table. It has a door on one side. There's a carved design on the door. There's some sort of gold- or brass-colored metal set into the top of the table. The legs are short.
This will do for the description of the table. Let's try to make some sort of sentence out of it.
"The low, wooden coffee table had a carved design on its door, gold-colored metal set into the top, and short legs."
It's not quite as pretty a picture as the eucalyptus tree, is it? No, not really. What is missing? The specifics.
Certain words can add incredible meaning to a sentence. Let's try consulting our thesaurus to add a bit of color to our table.
Wood: varieties include oak, chestnut, and mahogany-let's stop here. Mahogany's a nice sounding wood. Let's check our dictionary to see what mahogany is like.
Mahogany: any of several tropical American trees of the genus Swietenia, esp. S. mahagoni and S. macrophylla, yielding hard, reddish brown wood used for making furniture.
Does a reddish brown coffee table sound okay to you? It sounds right nice to me.
The benefits of using the word "mahogany" are twofold: first, you define the actual type of wood that this coffee table is made out of. Second, you also define the color of the table. If you add the word "stained" in front of mahogany, then it would deepen the color of the wood. Let's go ahead and add this.
"The low, stained mahogany coffee table had a carved design on its door, gold-colored metal set into the top, and short legs." This sentence is getting a little long for how little it's describing. This time, let's try to consolidate a phrase into just a couple of words. Let's work on the "gold-colored metal set into the top" part.
Referencing the thesaurus and dictionary again, you can turn "gold-colored" into "gilded." Makes it another metal that has been gold-plated. And, for those of you that read a lot, you'd eventually happen upon the word "inlay." It means a layer of fine material placed into something else for contrast. Let's add this now. Let's add some more synonym work to the door, and specify the pattern of the "design."
"The low, stained mahogany coffee table had a fleur-de-lis etched into its door, a gilded inlay atop, and short legs."
The "short legs" seems to just restate the fact that the table is low, just like it was stated at the beginning. Let's reorganize the sentence to mix the "low" and "short legs." We'll use the word "squat," because the tone of the word makes the whole table low, wide, and generally chubby-looking.
"The stained mahogany coffee table with the gilded inlay rested on squat, rounded legs, a fleur-de-lis etched into its door."
Wow. This thing must have cost a lot. It's probably in some lavish living room with plush carpet.
Step 3: Drawing the Eye
With pictures, there's always some point of focus that the artist wants you to look at. All other stuff is not as important, hence it's downplayed in the picture. With writing, you do this with the amount of description you give things. The more important an object, or a person, or a place, the more description you'll want to give it. If your characters will be visiting a place often, you'll want to paint a detailed backdrop for them, so it sticks in the mind of the reader. If it's not overly important, you'll just need to reference it as being there, and leave the reader's imagination to fill up the rest.
For example, you have a very important room that will be visited often, or will, perhaps, be at a pivotal moment in the story. You'll want to detail the room, including most, if not all of the senses. Is the room dimly lit by a single reading light? Is there a large, creaky wooden table set off in the corner? Does the room smell musty? Is it warm and humid? Is there a hole in the ceiling, letting the rainwater from the night before drip to the dusty, earthen floor? Is the short, chubby guy with the auburn hair peeking through the open window? These are details that the reader may want to know.
This contrasts to other things that aren't so important, like perhaps the flashlight that the main character is holding while scrambling through a dark cave, his heart pounding in his ears as he hears footsteps behind him.
Did you catch that? The flashlight, though the main topic of that last paragraph, was downplayed in importance by adding something more exciting. You got more worried about those footsteps than the flashlight, or even the whole topic of this article. The details were pointing towards the panicked feeling of the main character. The supporting details, "scrambling through a dark cave," "heart pounding in his ears," and "footsteps behind him," were about the main character, not the flashlight.
Step 4: Viewing it as a Whole
This ties in very closely with the "Drawing the Eye." In order to draw attention to specific things, you need to take a step back from your verbal tapestry and take in the big picture. How important is this thing, really? Does it make a profound impact on the entire rest of the story? Or does its ripples of importance fade gently away as time goes on? These factors can effect how much time you should spend describing how something looks, or moves, or reacts to any given stimulus.
A pivotal moment in a story can have a book be slammed on the floor in defiance with a bone-chilling thud, whereas a less profound (Never say "less important," because ALL moments should seem important. You don't want your reader to be able to skip over ANYTHING. You want them riveted to their seat.) moment may just have the book casually slip to the floor.
Step 5: Adding Color Variations
The exact words you use can be influenced by exactly how much you want to go in any particular direction. Sure, "He went home," is a safe enough sentence, but "went" is a rather weak-sounding word. Apparently there was no danger involved in getting home. There was also no real rush to get home, nor was there any reason to leave whatever place in a hurry.
Let's try a word that goes in the "slowly" direction.
"He trudged home."
Apparently this person is miserable, or possibly tired. There may be nothing to look forward to at home, or perhaps he just regrets leaving whatever place. Let's try a different degree of "slow."
"He staggered home."
He could be tired, injured, or drunk. Either way, he's in no condition to walk. Let's try some "quickly" now.
"He ran home."
There is something either good or bad at home or something worth running from. Let's try another variation of "quickly."
"He fled home."
This has some negative connotations. Either something has happened at the place he left, or something bad has happened at home.
This applies to adjectives as well as verbs. You can use different versions of the same word to describe something to different degrees, depending on the idea you have in your mind. Sure, it could be "fat," but it could also be "pudgy," which gives it a somewhat youthful flair. Or perhaps "obese," which is rather disgusting. There's also "stout," which gives it the roundness, plus shortness with a side order of maybe-in-shape.
Step 6: Adding Movement to Your Picture
Always remember that your verbs can describe as well. The exact verb that you use may make something move swiftly, or perhaps haphazardly, softly, or in circles. There's really no difference in the process of verb selection as there is for any other descriptor. A leaf can "flutter," a hummingbird can "dart," it all depends on how you want to get the job done.
Reflect on the earlier sections and replace them with simple actions. Adverbs will replace adjectives, describing the action instead of the object.
"He slowly trudged down the street."
"She gently placed her hand on the book."
"They fled, panicked, from the burning building."
Keep in mind, though most authors have a progress in the works, every author is a work in progress.
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