What was the last thing you read that completely captured you? Specifically, was it a single character, a description so real that you saw the thin layer of dust on the unused piano, or a scene in which you smelled freshly baked cookies as you felt the heat from the oven?
In her column “Paint Pictures with Words” (Writer’s Digest, January 2016), Barbara Baig notes that when our sentences are filled with “the vocabulary of the senses, we are forming verbal images. That is, we are making word pictures that communicate to readers the pictures in our own imaginations . . . we give them the sensory details and let those details act on their imaginations.”
As the writer, our job is to activate the reader’s imagination with just enough details. Then, we must decide “how clearly to focus our images.” As with many aspects of writing, a balance must be found. The words we write must allow our readers to visualize the details, to make our writing come alive but allow space for the reader’s own interpretation. As a writer’s words become personal to the reader, the reader will remember the words.
Techniques that Baig, author of Spellbind Sentences (2015), suggest include:
Don’t forget adjectives and adverbs
Adjectives and adverbs can make the picture more powerful, more vivid.
Consider the effect of your image on readers
The language of the imagination is a writer’s most powerful tool to make things happen inside the readers: to make them see, hear and taste, to evoke sensations and emotions inside them. We must make choices. Usually the decisions we make depend on what we want our language pictures to do to our readers.
Choose between static and moving images
As you practice imitating verbal images made by skilled writers, you will probably notice that some of them lack movement, while others involve a great deal of motion. What you are noticing is the difference between static images—those that don’t show any action—and dynamic images —those that do. When we create static images we are writing description. When we create dynamic images we are writing narration.
Baig included an example of skillful imagery from Josephine Tey’s 1936 mystery A Shilling for Candles:
“It was a little after 7 on a summer morning, and William Potticary was taking his accustomed way over the short down grass of the cliff-top. Beyond his elbow, 200 feet below, lay the Channel, very still and shining, like a milky opal. All around him hung the bright air, empty as yet of larks. In all the sunlit world no sound except for the screaming of some seagulls on the distant beach.”
One of the books on my shelf is Rebecca McClanahan’s Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively (2000; revised edition 2014). In it, McClanahan writes, “Description is an attempt to present as directly as possible the qualities of a person, place, object or event. When we describe, we make impressions, attempting through language to represent reality. Description is, in effect, word painting.”
Description enhances writing in all genres. As McClanahan notes, “A writer need not be bound by flat statement like ‘It was a rough sea,’ when verbs like tumble and roil and seethe wait to spell from her pen.”
Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio