Down With Dull Descriptions

Consider this sentence:
Uncle Jake was a handsome man. He married Aunt Zelda when he was twenty-six and worked as a beer distributor all his life.
Anyone who knew Uncle Jake would probably agree that he was handsome, but the rest of us have to fill in the blanks with our own idea of what a handsome man looks like. Are we talking Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, or maybe JFK? Was Uncle Jake pale, swarthy, or well-tanned? Big muscles? Tall? Well-dressed?

One of the keys to writing vivid descriptions of people is to close your eyes and picture the person standing in front of you.
Wrap the person in your thoughts and focus on your feelings as you focus on the image. Scan it for three or four outstanding characteristics, and fix them firmly in mind, then open your eyes and write about what you saw and felt.

After doing this exercise, Uncle Jake's description might read like this:
Uncle Jake had the bearing of a retired general who would command respect in any setting. He stood ramrod straight all his life, looking even taller than his six-foot-two height. His face bore the patina of age, and even at 72, the short-cropped hair surrounding his shiny pate still had more pepper than salt. When he gazed across the room, his blue eyes took on a steely glint, but when he saw a friend (which included most people — Uncle Jake had more friends than most of the rest of the family put together), those eyes twinkled with a mixture of pleasure and mischief. His face broke into a smile that always melted my heart, as it must have melted Aunt Zelda’s when she first saw him when she was twenty-one and he was four years older. They were married the next year. The combination of his magnetic personality and distinctive appearance surely contributed to his success as a beer distributor.
I haven’t mentioned his slightly crooked nose, the way his ears stuck out, or his gold tooth. I haven’t mentioned the patches of hair on the base of his fingers, his ruddy complexion, or his bushy eyebrows. You haven’t read about his tendency to five-o’clock shadow by 2 pm, or his penchant for loose-fit Levis and plaid flannel shirts. I only used the details that define him the most vividly to me. If Uncle Jake plays a major role in a long story, I may work a few of those other details in later, but using all of them at once would be overwhelming.

One of the best ways to develop skill in writing descriptions of people is to pay close attention to those you encounter every day. Notice how some noses remind you of a ski run, or ears look like the handles on a pitcher. Notice how the woman ahead of you in the checkout line has a mop of curly hair with several strands dangling three inches lower on the right and think what they would look like supporting a Christmas Tree ornament. What could you say about the high school friend who shows up at a reunion looking as if he hasn’t been in the same room with hair-trimming shears in about a decade? Is that pink thing a nose? What creature’s eyes are peeking through that chestnut thicket? What else lives in there with him?

Take joy in the diversity of appearance and celebrate it with words of appreciation for differences. These people made enough of an impression on you to merit inclusion in your story. Make them memorable for your readers too.

Oh yes! It goes without saying that writing with a mean spirit is okay in your journal, but ... think very carefully before sharing mean, angry or hurtful descriptions.

Write now: one or two paragraphs each describing four to six people who have enriched your life. You don’t have to write full stories, just make the descriptions vivid. Post your favorite as a comment on this post.


grandmajulia said...

As always, there is so much to learn from you. Did I ever tell you how much I appreciate the knowledge you are so kind to share to people like me so we can wake up within us the writer that has long been asleep.

I am sorry I have not been very active in the forum. But I have been dropping once in a while to pick up some ideas which I could try.

I do not remember now who in the forum has suggested to try to inject some dialogs in the stories you write to make it more interesting but I did take the suggestion to heart and gave it a try.

Mind you it was not easy shifting to a writing style which people who have read you rate as very good. But that is the blessing of being old. You are no longer afraid to leave your comfort zone to battle it out in an untested field.

Incidentally, I am raising the bar a notch higher for myself. I am now trying to give writing a book a stab. It was a dream I let die 75 years ago now its ghost has come back begging me to give it a second chance to live. That dream is now alive and seeing form. Thanks to all the support from people like you.

Do give my greetings to our friends at the forum. I hope to join them again soon.

All the best.

Lenin said...

This is great advice. In fact, this could well lift the issue of showing vs telling from some writers' minds. I, however, always believed that doing extra effort at showing your characters or situations is not necessary. Each writer has his or her own style and we shouldn't constrain them. It is advisable to read such posts as this to know the art. However, if a writer writes without any proper showing, it is his way, right. but selling works always seem to show emotions and situations quite well.