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Write Descriptive Passages to Die For
"Musings" for April 2006

by Margot Finke

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Great artists use watercolors, oil paint, or charcoal to make the canvases they paint glow with color, depth, and hints of mystery. Great writers use words to do the same thing. Painting word pictures that grip your reader should be the goal of every writer. The words you choose are what gives your settings that memorable glow, your characters their depth, and your plot enough mystery to keep your readers completely involved. Descriptive passages need powerful verbs, and adjectives that evoke the emotions.

Crafting a Descriptive Passage:
Place, Joy, Fear, or Grief

A Place: Know the place you are about to describe. If it is not somewhere you have lived, or visited often, set it up it in your mind. The time of day, exactly what this place contains - buildings, trees, streets, mountains or desert: whatever. Put all this together, along with any special relationship this place has with the characters in your story. Do this, until the scene becomes as familiar to you as your own home town. Choose words that will paint vivid details.

Example: Molly crept out the door onto the front porch. Early morning. A fresh new day. Their old farmhouse sat comfortably on an acre of grass and gardens, surrounded by trees. Distant traffic sounds filtered through trees: muted background music. Molly sat on the steps and took a deep contented breath. Dawn's ragged swirls of mist lingered among the maple and fir trees. Two robins pecked in the grass looking for worms. Mom's bed of daffodils glowed yellow in the morning light. Molly hugged herself, while a nippy breeze poked through her thin cotton nightie. And then she saw them. They stepped out of the mist-laden gloom between the trees, one dainty step after the other, across the grass in front of her. There were three of them: a deer and her two young fawns. Molly held her breath. Awesome!

Note: Look at the words I use to paint this scene. Powerful verbs & evocative adjectives. huddled, crept, comfortably, filtered, muted, contented, ragged swirls, lingered, pecked, nippy, poked, mist laden gloom, dainty step, awesome.

Joy/Happiness: I think everyone has moments of happiness in their lives: times when sheer joy is within their grasp. When you need to write about joy and happiness, dig deep for those times. Let the emotions wash over you. Alternately, think about how others you know responded when joy and happiness took them for an emotional whirl. Now, look for words that paint joy and happiness for the character in your story.

Example: A small square parcel, wrapped in newspaper, sat outside the front door. Newspaper? Molly frowned. Neat birthday gifts didn't come wrapped in newspaper. She poked at it with her toe. "Oh well, better get it over with." She picked up the parcel and ripped off the wrapping.

Underneath, Molly discovered a box with an oh-so-familiar logo. "It can't be!" Off came the lid. "YES!" Happiness fizzed through her. She might just explode like a shaken pop can. The card inside said it all. "Happy birthday, kiddo. Hope the wrapping put you off the scent for a bit. Love and hugs, Grandpa." The box held a gift certificate for a new computer--bells and whistles included. The grin stayed on Molly's face all day.

Note: poked, ripped, happiness fizzed, explode, shaken pop can, kiddo, bells and whistles. These words helped to press Molly's happiness button.

Fear or Grief: The ability to dredge up past feelings of fear and grief is a great asset to any writer. If this is too troublesome for you, or you have been blessed with a trouble free life, I suggest you read books that deal with fear and sadness. Study how authors choose words that set the scene. A good writer will pick words that pull at your heart strings, and make the character's sadness or sorrow absolutely real. Look for signs of teardrops on the pages of books that do this well. My example fits both emotions.

Example - Fear: Midnight, and someone pounded on the front door. "Mom? Dad?" Where were they? The movie got out at 11. Molly crawled out of bed and tiptoed downstairs. A shadowy figure showed through the frosted glass in the front door. Fear nibbled at her making her knees wobble.

Mom's voice echoed inside her head. "Remember, don't answer the door when we're away." Molly crouched, back pressed against the wall, mouth dry-as-dirt. "Please, go away," her words a choked whisper.

Key Words - pounded, crawled, tiptoed, shadowy, fear nibbled, wobble, echoed, crouched, ,pressed, dry-as-dirt, choked. Short dramatic sentences heighten tension. Again, the key words are mostly powerful and active verbs.

Example - Grief: "It's me, Molly, Sergeant Henderson. I need to talk to you." Molly let out her breath. Whew! That's a voice she recognized. Door open in a flash, she looked up at him, shivering. Sadness and pity stared back at her.

Later. Minutes, hours, days. . .? Molly, raw and red-eyed, whimpered, "Why did this awful thing happen?" She ached for one last hug. Please. . . Everyone tiptoed around her. They were all excruciatingly kind, yet she felt gray inside and out, like zombies on TV.

Anger boiled, shocking her. Mom and Dad had left her behind. "Cruel and mean!" Loneliness bit to the bone, yet the naked pity in peoples' eyes made her want to shout, "Go away! I don't want sympathy." They left her alone, and memories filled the silence. Molly longed for what could never be. The winter sky, gray as stone, cried with her.

Key Words - flash, shivered, pity, stared, raw, red-eyed, whimpered, boiled, shocking, mean, bit to the bone, naked pity, shout, ached, excruciatingly, shout, memories filled the silence, longed, gray as stone. Look for words that paint the feelings of grief.

Tell the reader how your character feels, and adjectives and adverbs will pop up all over the place. However, If you show your reader how grief combines with anger, to affect a person body-and-soul, then active verbs must be your words of choice. When you find a descriptive passage in a book that dredges up old memories, makes your heart beat faster, or gives you a laugh, study the words that were used. Keep a notebook handy. Make a list of all the wonderful words you read and hear every day. . When it comes to descriptive or emotional passages, tap into your inner self, and don't be afraid to let it all hang out.


Margot Finke's biography and index to Musings.

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