Total Reader Immersion: Writing Evocative Descriptions
Have you ever read a book whose language was so lush, so vivid, so incredibly realistic that you felt, even just for a moment, that the characters, places, and events of the book must actually be real? That’s total reader immersion, right there. The holy grail of writing. To be able to, with a few words, make someone feel as though they were really there, in your story, alongside your characters. To let them actually experience exactly what it feels like to cast a spell, to fly, or to touch a dragon’s scales. So that once they are done with your book, they will never be the same. They will wear red scarves over black-and-white outfits and go to circuses. They will buy wands and drink Butterbeer. They will go to book launch parties, dressed in their midnight best. They will read your books by day, and dream of your worlds by night.
With solid description-writing skills, you can do that. You can do more than tell a story: you can bring it to life. All it takes is a little practice. And since you're practicing . . . here are a few do's and don'ts it may help to keep in mind, inspired by some of my favorite descriptions in fantasy fiction.
DO Read It Out Loud
“It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.”--The Name of the Wind
Have you ever heard a poem in a language you don’t understand? It is fascinating, how even without knowing the language, you can often understand the emotion behind the poem, just from the sound and pacing of the words. Good description is like that. Try saying these words out loud: susurrus, balk, encrusted. Each of these words has a sound that extends beyond its definition in a dictionary. The sound, shape, and length of their sounds carry associations. Are they short, staccato sounds? Sibilant and hissing? What does it say, if you use smooth, liquid sounding words to describe a brutal act? Or clipped precise words to describe a dance? Choose your words carefully, and you can convey emotion as eloquently as the soundtrack in a movie.
DON’T use too many weird words. I love unusual words—I have multiple rare-word books that I curl up with at night before bed. But a reader shouldn’t have to consult a dictionary after every sentence—they should be able to just experience your story. Treat unusual words like precious gems and set them in the silver and gold of simple language. That way, your beautiful word can shine to its best effect.
DO Use All Five Senses
“There was no sound except the rain, hissing like radio static …. She ducked under the dripping branches of an elm, stepping on tufts of short ferns and looping briars. Weeds brushed across her calves, leaving strokes of rain. The storm-bright sky lit the woods with silver. An earthy, sweet odor of rot bloomed where she disturbed the carpet of leaves.” --Tithe
Smell, they say, is the sense most linked to memory. So why are all of our books so visually biased? This scene is so evocative that I don’t just see it, I feel like I am physically there--from the use of expressive words like “brushed” and “strokes,” to all the wet imagery like “dripping, ” “rain,” and “storm.” The smell of rot is perfect—what better word than “blooming” to describe the experience of smelling something released into the air? The word “hissing” and the use of a technological term, once so omnipresent, for rain gets across not just the sound, but also the saturation of sound. And the visual imagery isn’t bad either. Sure, there’s no taste in this one, but I’ll give that a pass. Not every scene needs to remind us of what you have in your mouth.
DON’T describe everything with all five senses, exhaustively. A paragraph can usually get across what you’re trying to say. It’s great to use description to set the scene, but then your characters need to walk out on stage and start acting.
DO Use Metaphors, Similes, and Symbols
“Creamy and leggy, with long azure hair and the eyes of a silent-movie star, she moved like a poem and smiled like a sphinx.”--Daughter of Smoke & Bone
I love that phrase: “smiled like a sphinx.” Immediately, the myths and images of the legendary sphinxes—sharp, mysterious, predatory, impish, sensuous--come to mind, and you learn so much more about Karou than that she’s moved some muscles in her lips. And that’s not even getting into “the eyes of a silent-movie star”—which brings about immediate and clear imagery—and the more lyrical “she moved like a poem” which despite being distinctly figurative carries with it such strong associations that you get a vivid picture nonetheless. That’s the power of metaphors, similes, and symbols. Our prior reading experiences can imbue a simple word with whole layers of meaning—enabling authors to weave rich, layered descriptions with just handfuls of letters.
DON’T get carried away. If the woman you’re describing sounds more like a menagerie than a person, you’ve gone too far. And be careful not to stretch or abuse your metaphors, either. A little symbolism goes a long way.
DO Be Specific
“Stretched across the top of the gates, hidden in curls of iron, more firefly-like lights flicker to life. They pop as they brighten, some accompanied by a shower of glowing white sparks and a bit of smoke. The people nearest the gate take a few steps back. At first, it is only a random pattern of lights. But as more of them ignite, it becomes clear that they are aligned in scripted letters. First a C is distinguishable, followed by more letters. A q, oddly, and several e’s. When the final bulb pops alight, and the smoke and sparks dissipate, it is finally legible, this elaborate incandescent sign. Leaning to your left to gain a better view, you can see that it reads: Le Cirque des Reves”--The Night Circus
How much more beautiful is that, than a bald description? The details are exquisite and evocative. It is both active and specific, balancing the exacting details of how the sign looks when it comes to life with striking, active words such as “stretched,” “curls,” and “hidden” for even static things. Reality never stands still, and so the play-by-play description of the sign stuttering to life reads as a vivid, realistic description, rather than the pause-button descriptions we often read, and the human reactions of the crowd ground it in reality and give us context. Using details, rather than generic descriptions, not only paints a better picture, it also makes it more memorable by giving us something to focus on. In addition, each detail chosen tells us something about the point-of-view character—what they notice, and what they find important.
DON’T break everything down into itemized lists. “She was five feet five inches, twenty-seven years old, one hundred twenty-one pounds, and she had brown eyes and brown hair. Her house was two-thousand square feet…” These aren’t the kinds of details you’re looking for. Even though at first glance these absolute data points seem to tell the reader a lot, they aren’t memorable, and they actually don’t say much. You’re looking for the kinds of details you notice when someone or thing catches your eye. The things that make you catch your breath, the things you remember even years after the event.
For practice writing description, check out my list of 52 Writing Exercises, inspired by some of my favorite books. There are a number of exercises in there specifically focused on writing description. Choose one or two, and try writing descriptions keeping in mind all of the tips listed above.