This is the second part of my Beginner’s Guide to Writing Descriptions. The first part can be found here.
In this part of the guide I’m relying heavily on the belief that the best images and the strongest impressions we get from stories are those we create in our own minds.
I’m sure there are exceptions to this – as with all rules – but for the purpose of this guide, I’ve chosen not to dwell on that. If you have a good example of an exception though, please share it in the comments.
The guide is divided into three parts:
- The Power of Association, which is about how our memories and past experiences can add meaning to the words we read, beyond the words themselves.
- Coloring With Emotion, which is about how our attitude towards something changes our impression of it.
- Motion and Emotion, which is about how our body language can say more than the words we speak.
And now, without further ado:
The Power Of Association
Words have power.
As a writer, you know this. You know it very well, so let’s not dwell on whether that really is the case or not. Instead, let’s get to the point right away: the power of association.
Us humans, we have memories, and the longer we live, the more of them we get. At your current age (whatever it may be), you probably have more memories than you can easily comprehend – even if you’re probably only able to think of a few of them right now. That doesn’t mean all of your other memories aren’t there, you just need something to trigger them and bring them up to the surface. It could be a word, or a sentence, like, for example:
- Summer holiday
- First day in school
- First kiss
- “That’s no moon.”
Don’t tell me that none of the above brought up some kind of memory, or a mental image of some kind, or even just a feeling. They did. That’s the power of association.
You can use this to enhance your description.
Any impression that your reader creates on their own (with your help) will be stronger and more real to them than any impression you create for the them without their input. When your reader gets to create their own impressions, they put more of themselves into it, making the story more their own, and increasing their attachment to it.
Keep in mind that associations aren’t just about mental images, but about all kinds of sensations and feelings. It can be anything, like smells and tastes and memories. If you want to evoke a certain feeling or emotion in a scene, use words that you associate with that feeling or that emotion. You can’t know for sure that other’s will have the same associations, but chances are they will be at least somewhat similar.
Consider the following short paragraph:
Rob stomped the snow off his boots and stepped inside. He pulled the scarf from his face and breathed in the smell of fresh coffee from the kitchen.
Now, let’s consider the following questions:
- Where is Rob?
- What is Rob wearing?
None of these questions are answered in the paragraph, but based on what we are told we can make some guesses – and you probably already have.
Where is Rob?
Rob is probably at home.
At the very least, he’s in familiar surroundings – or he wouldn’t be making noise and getting ready to take his clothes off. The fact there is a kitchen indicates it’s a home of some sort. Sure, it could be a canteen, or a break room, or the kitchen of a restaurant, but if it were, it would probably have been mentioned.
Also, there’s the smell of fresh coffee. Whether you like coffee or not, you will have the understanding of how this is meant to symbolize safety, comfort, and familiarity.
The least complicated explanation is that Rob has just come home.
What is Rob wearing?
We already know there’s snow on Rob’s boots and that he wore a scarf over his face. We’ve assumed he’s been out in the snow and cold. He probably also wears mittens or gloves. He wears a big warm jacket. It may or may not have a fur lined hood. If it doesn’t, he wears some kind of winter hat to keep his head warm. We don’t know this for sure, but it’s the kind of clothes we associate with people who are out in the cold and who also wear boots and a scarf.
The least complicated explanation is that he wears winter clothes.
How do we know all this?
We create our own expectations based on our own experiences with the situation described. Some of you reading this may never have seen snow in real life, but chances are you’ll have read about it, or seen it in movies or on tv. You know what it is and you can associate Rob’s situation with what you’ve read or seen, and you create your impressions of it based on that.
Such is the power of association.
The way to use it is to trigger associations in your readers. That way, they’ll create their own images, and you won’t have to tell them what they should imagine.
As an exercise, consider the following two questions:
- Where has Rob been?
- What will Rob do next?
As you think about it, you’ll probably realize that you’re able to make a fairly elaborate guess about both of these questions. Don’t try to hard. The first thing that comes to mind is probably the most likely. There are no right or wrong answers. There’s only what you imagine – and what you imagine is based on how you associate to the described situation.
Or is it? After you read the paragraph about Rob, you read all of my words analyzing the first two questions. Did this affect your impression of his situation? I think it did.
All words are important – even those who aren’t meant to be.
As an additional exercise, consider how your impression of the situation might have changed if Rob had been named Bjarngrim, Jean-Paul, or Eiluvandiriel, and the word smell replaced by aroma, or fragrance.
Coloring With Emotions
Using the power of association, we can color our readers’ imagination through their emotions. If we not only describe how something looks (or smells, or sounds), but also nudge the readers’ emotions in the right direction, it’ll add a little bit more depth to their impression of whatever we’re describing.
If I’m going to describe a cafe where I’m having a coffee, I can start out in a number of different ways:
- I went to a cafe
- I went to a small cafe
- I went to some cafe
- I went to my favorite cafe
- I went to a cheap cafe
None of the above describe how the cafe actually looks, but they will charge the description emotionally. The description of the actual location can be the exact same for all five cafes above, but your reader will still imagine your favorite cafe and the cheap cafe differently.
This is because they feel differently about them from the start. A favorite place has to have some positive qualities. Your reader may even have a favorite cafe of their own, and when they read those words, it will trigger an association to that place. After that, the exact description isn’t that important, your reader’s image of the place will still take on some of the qualities of their own favorite cafe.
By comparison, the cheap cafe will look rather different. I dare say that, in this context, cheap is not a positively charged word. It brings on all kinds of negative implications. The coffee may not be as nice, the muffins may be stale, and the floor might be sticky. This needn’t be mentioned in the actual description of the place, but your reader may still have a vague impression of how that might be the case – and that’s enough to color their impression of the cheap cafe – even if the description is the exact same as of your favorite cafe.
Now, this is an example. In practice, you probably wouldn’t describe your favorite cafe in the exact same words as the cheap cafe. You’d add in little positive or negative modifiers in your description to further enhance how much you like it, or how you’re really only go there for a quick caffeine fix before you move on to wherever you’re going.
On top of that, keep in mind that you don’t have to to place all descriptive elements in the actual description. If your characters are talking about going to a cafe, and one of them mentions that they know this nice little spot down by the river, that’ll go a long way towards coloring your readers’ attitude towards the place, long before they actually “see” it.
Motions And Emotions
In this day and age, most of you reading this will have at least some experience with online chatting – communicating with one or more people via text. You write a message, press enter, and the message appears on the other person’s screen for them to read and respond to.
You may also have noticed, how it’s not always clear what the other person really means, even if their spelling and grammar is correct. It’s not always possible just to tell from someone’s words if they’re being serious or sarcastic, or whether they’re really angry or just fooling around.
This is in large part due to the absence of body language. We don’t see the person we’re talking to so we’re missing out on their facial expressions, their posture, and other things that may help clarify what they really mean. To a certain extent, various kinds of emoticons can help clarify things, but even then, it’s not always obvious.
The same applies when writing.
Our characters say things, and while the context often makes it clear what they mean, it’s not always obvious. Unless you actually describe the character’s body language as they speak, we don’t see it. You won’t have to describe every single move your character does though. Stick with the movements that means something.
Through experience, we associate certain motions with emotions. If someone shrugs, we associate that with uncertainty, or a lack of preference. If they smile, it means one thing, and if they frown, it means another. You’ve seen people do it in real life. You know what it means.
We can use this to great effect in our stories. By describing a character’s movements we trigger our readers’ associations with those movements, and they create their own impression of how the character feels.
Let’s look at some characters all saying the same thing.
- Charles crossed his arms behind his back, looked down at his feet and pouted. “No.”
- Jenn slammed her fist into the table and glared at him. “No.”
- Rob stroked his chin and stared out the window. “No.”
- Sarah sank back into the chair, her shoulders slumped and her lower lip quivering. “No.”
Now consider these phrases:
- “I’m not sure that will work.”
- “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again”
- “Please say it’s not true.”
- “I will not allow it.”
Which phrase do you think was said by which character after they said no? It’s not very hard to figure out, right? That’s because you’re able to associate all of the described movements with a certain set of emotions. You’re also able to associate the various phrases with the same emotions.
This works for me, and for you, and it works for our readers as well.
What you as a writer need to do, is identify which motions correspond to which emotions and then use it in your writing. By describing a character’s motions, you will trigger associations in your reader and they will create their own impression of the character’s emotions.
I mentioned this at the start, but I’ll repeat it here at the end as well: any impression you make the reader create on their own, will be stronger and more real to them, than any impression you create for them.
The focus of this article is to emphasize the benefits of having the reader create their own images and impressions. I believe very strongly that this increases reader engagement in the story, but even then it may not always be the best thing to do. What examples can you think of where it’s better to just state “this is how it is” and leave it at that?
With body language, as with verbal communication, cultural differences may play a role. Considering this, when would you “translate” the body language of a character to what your audience would intuitively understand, and when would you create new gestures for use by members of the culture you’ve created?
At the end of the first section of this article, the one about Rob, I asked if you thought my words and comments about the example description had affected your impression of Rob’s situation. Well, do you?