At the risk of sounding like a snob, I have a confession to make. I adore literary writing.
Literary books often get a bad rap, because let’s face it, they can be dense and slow-moving. But if you can get past that, you’ll find the writing often sings with fresh and unexpected imagery and beautiful turns of phrase.
Searching for the right adjective, the right word is like digging in the sand. Easy just to shovel up a spadeful and fling it in the bucket without thinking too hard about it. It takes an artist to dig for the treasure in every turn of phrase, every description, refusing to settle for the stale or mundane.
Nothing turns me off a book quicker than overused turns of phrase. To me it shows a lack of care for craftsmanship. And if you, the author, don’t care about the words you choose, why should I invest in those words as a reader?
Here are some ideas for keeping your descriptions fresh.
1. Eliminate clichés.
Clichés have become cliché for a reason. When first coined, these turns of phrase were considered so dazzlingly original, so apt, that they became wildly popular. Now they’re overused because successive generations of writers have been too lazy to reach for their own original and apt expressions.
Read through your manuscript. Have you used any clichés like these? Thin as a rail. Neat as a pin. Fresh as a daisy. Clear as crystal.
Or these? Her hands were cold as ice. His heart beat like a drum.
Get out your pruning shears. Lop those suckers out of your manuscript. Now it’s time to reinvigorate your descriptions.
2. Brainstorm alternatives.
Okay, so rails are thin. What else is thin? Don’t censor yourself. As fast as you can, write a list of a dozen alternative ideas.
Now have a look back over what you’ve written. Do any of these alternate descriptions have additional shades of meaning that may suggest something else about your character, other than mere physical thinness?
For example – Thin as a dandelion stem. A dandelion is a pretty weed. Could you imagine using this description for an emotionally fragile young girl who, although fresh and lovely, sees herself as worthless?
What about this? Thin as a kite string. A kite string snaps with brisk energy. This description would be fitting for a playful boy.
Or this. Thin as the leather-bound ledger she kept on her desk. I’m picturing a woman who is precise and particular, and somewhat lacking in humor.
See how this sort of imagery enriches your writing? Suddenly your description is doing double-duty. You’ve harnessed an obvious physical characteristic and used it to give subtle insights into character.
3. Make new connections.
When describing an object or setting, ask yourself what the image reminds you of. The obvious parallels are always the first to spring to mind. Shadows reached across the path like fingers. The wind moaned in the eaves. Now think again. What unexpected associations can you conjure?
Shadow and moon-fall braided themselves across the path.
A bossy wind scolded at his window, clucking and fussing amongst the leaves. Can you picture the wind as an outspoken housewife?
In Katy Popa’s beautiful book, The Feast of Saint Bertie, she describes the “marigold flames” consuming her protagonist’s house. Comparing something so ravaging to a flower is out-of-the-ordinary. But suddenly, through those words, we see the fire as a thing of unexpected beauty. Can’t you just picture the vivid orange-yellow of those flames?
One of my favorite examples is from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. He describes a person sitting on the step in a pair of “decomposing shoes.”
He could have described the shoes as worn-out, moldering, wet, smelly, or falling-apart. Instead he selected one unusual word that sums up all of these things in a powerful word-picture. What’s more, this one detail gives us instant insight into the character, revealing more about them than could have been achieved in a page of more mundane description.
4. Read poetry.
In a poem, every word counts. Therefore, the poet chooses each word with care, often creating word pictures of startling originality and simplicity as a result.
How about these beautiful lines by poet Brook Emery, taken from her poem “Night”?
Expectation stitches me to the dark, makes silence that can be touched.
During the day rain falls as light, at night it falls as sound
Like a fish twisting against the line
I’m drawn into the sharp transactions of the light.
As you read poetry, you’ll train yourself to see the world in new ways, forming new associations that may not previously have occurred to you.
5. Grow your vocabulary.
Be intentional about it. The best way to do this is by reading widely and recording new words in a notebook. If you come across a word you don’t know, look it up. Write it down. The more words you know, the more you shades of nuance you’ll have access to in your writing.
But do all of this with one important caveat. Namely:
6. Don’t fall prey to purple prose.
The true power of literary description lies in its simplicity and restraint. One truly apt word, one lean and carefully crafted sentence is more powerful than a dozen overused phrases.
Aussie writer Tim Winton is a master at this. Here are some of his lines from “Dirt Music” and “The Turning”:
The girl’s “lank blond hair fretted in the wind.”
The man’s “crow’s feet like knife cuts.”
The fire “sucked the air from the room and danced before him like a thought just out of reach.”
The blood “runs thin as copper wire in his veins.”
His breath “aglow like a coal in his chest.”
The night is “hot and salted with stars.”
Your turn. What beautiful turns of phrase have you uncovered recently?
Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Karen Schravemade lives in Australia. When she's not chasing after two small boys or gazing at her brand-new baby girl, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website, on Twitter or getting creative over at her mummy blog.