Using descriptive language that affects your readers’ emotions will enhance the main impression you want your readers to take from each scene.
We’re focusing on description for the next few posts. Yesterday, I wrote about what it means to create a main impression in each scene and how that will help our readers fill in the details we don’t have time to describe (click to read: The Writer’s Descriptive Techniques: #1—Create a Main Impression).
While your characters actions and dialogue will help affect the reader’s emotions, it’s your description that will drive those emotions home. Description in a book is like a soundtrack in a movie: both can influence the scene more than the audience realizes. Today we will discuss the easiest main-impression-creating descriptive technique: choosing details that enhance your main impression.
Picture yourself at your favorite outdoor café. (I’m choosing Tommy Bahamas’ Naples because they have the best crab bisque in the world, and I’m hungry.) Close your eyes and imagine your your café. Pay attention to the details that you might often miss. Don’t forget the smells, the tastes, and the feeling of the breeze on your face.
Here are a few things I can think up with Tommy Bahamas’
- The tropical décor
- The smell of silk from their shops and coconut
- Palm trees
- Casually dressed waiters with Hawaiian shirts
- The caliber of people who flock there
- The types of people who hang out at the bar
- The crab bisque
- The terracotta tiles
- The gulf breeze
- The vase with an magenta orchid on each table
- Sea green wooden accents
I can continue listing detail after detail, and if the restaurant was a scene in my story, I would certainly have enough details to totally bore my reader. I don’t have time to list all of these items. I have to choose the important ones that will make the biggest emotional impact while still helping my reader feel like they see everything I see.
The challenge is laid before us as writers, isn’t it?
You have your setting, now imagine a few scenarios within that setting:
- Your character is running from the mafia, meeting a friend to ask for help
- A first date between your characters
- You character’s spouse has just left him, and he is alone at a booth
(Notice that each of those situations have the potential for emotionally-charged conflict. Our scenes should never be about our favorite restaurants. They should be about the story, the conflict, and the characters.)
With each of those scenarios, I want make sure to choose details about Tommy Bahamas’ that enhance the emotions I want my readers to feel.
- If my character is running away from the mafia, I might point out how open the restaurant is, making it difficult to hide. I would mention the man at the bar wearing a trench coat with something bulky inside. I might include the fire on the grill that makes my character nervous. I would discuss how all the umbrella-topped tables would make a difficult getaway. The booths may be sea green, but I would make sure to mention how they echoed, making it impossible to have a quiet conversation. I would definitely mention the private room with the beaded strings for curtains. My character might not be as interested in the bisque as he is on survival.
- If my characters are on a first date, I would muffle the sound and dim the lights. I would mention the candle on the table and the orchid. I would bring out more of the sensual details in the food—especially the flourless chocolate cake. I would be sure to mention the lights hanging from the palm trees and the cool breeze that blew a few strands of hair in the heroine’s face.
- If my character has been dumped, I would make sure he isn’t sitting at a booth. He’s either alone at a table or alone at the bar. I would point out the happy patrons purposefully to show how lonely my character is. I would make sure one of them reminds him of his wife. I would mention how the food doesn’t taste as good as normal and how the palm trees and the rich coconut/silk smell from the adjacent Tommy Bahamas’ stores remind him of their honeymoon. Basically, I make the poor guy even more miserable that he was before he came to the restaurant.
Each of these scenes takes place in the same café; I’m just choosing details that will enhance the impression I want to leave with my reader. I’m also going to make sure to link my details with the feelings or thoughts they inspire in my characters to drive my readers’ emotions even more.
Here are a few examples of my own blah description in a few of my first drafts and how I changed the details to enhance my main impression:
- I saw a barracuda swimming next to me. Boring isn’t it. It doesn’t leave the reader feeling nervous and scared. What about this? To my left lurked a three-foot-long barracuda—a thin, silver torpedo of a fish with needle sharp teeth—that glared at me as I passed. Details such as: lurked, torpedo, needle-sharp teeth, and glared give the reader a main impression of, “Oh dear. This ain’t good.”
- Davian entered the Treetop Inn. I wrote that sentence in A Prophecy Forgotten, and quickly realized that I needed to add something in. I wanted my readers to feel cozy, so… The Treetop Inn had been the most popular meeting place in the City of Ezzer for five centuries. The vast tavern’s only light came from a few torches and patches of sunlight that poured through its multicolored crystal windows. It had plump, cushy booths for quiet conversations, immense, round tables with soft chairs for lively parties, and the best honeywine and the finest service in all Elysia.
- In my second book, Out of the Shadows, I wanted to show how Elysia had changed. When I introduced the Treetop Inn, I used much different details: Maurice wiped the Treetop Inn’s bar for what felt like the fiftieth time. The lacquered counter already sparkled, but Maurice preferred wiping to gazing across the tavern of empty tables that should have been full of patrons talking or playing jalonga… A drop of sweat trickled down Maurice’s cheek and into the folds of skin between his chin and neck. Though the sweltering weather kept him from lighting fires in the fireplaces, his Treetop Inn still felt cold. [And later…] Davian removed his helmet and burst through the carved wooden door, barely noticing its creak as it swung back and forth. Usually, the Treetop’s wood-paneled walls made him feel cozy and comfortable, but not today—especially with the sterile aroma of soap instead of food filling the inn. He flew to the bar and hopped on a perching stool, ignoring the two merchants who strained their necks to peek at the Treetop’s newest patron. Davian glanced at Maurice, who wiped the far edge of the bar’s counter, muttering to himself.
Today’s assignment: go back to some of your scenes that need more emotional punch and see how you can change up some of your description. Also, make sure to tune into the next post where we will discuss how grouping related details together can help create a main impression.
Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.