4 Tips to writing ACTIVE description

by Susan May Warren


FOCUS


In my past couple posts, I have used this acronym to in to enhance our static description (Here for Part 1) and (Here for Part 2)

Today, we’re going to use this acronym, and apply it as we move our character throughout the scene, experiencing the storyworld as we interact with the actions of the scene

What is ACTIVE Description?
Active Description is simply putting the description through the eyes of a character then describing the scene (using the FOCUS elements and 5 senses) as they move through it. While static description can be used powerfully to snapshot a person, place or thing, active description keeps the story moving and is integrated into the scene. (It’s important to use both in a story!) Just like static description, active description can add a powerful emotional undercurrent to the scene.Consider this passage from Sons of Thunder:

Markos speared the water. The cool lick of it scooped his breath, slicked from his body the heat of the day.

He surfaced fast, gulped air, and dove back to the ocean floor, kicking toward the cave. A deep thrumming rumbled his bones even as he scrabbled over the slippery rock outside the entrance. The jaws raked his skin as he levered himself through a crevice just big enough for a boy of seventeen.

Although it’s an active description, it is meant to create a sense of tension as he pushes himself into the cave. I could have written it more simply: Fear coiled inside him as he pushed himself into the cave. But I wanted to description to convey the emotion, and not name it directly.

Here’s another passage from the same book:

She sat at the dressing table. He knew he should turn away, but he couldn’t quite find it in him. Instead, he watched as she curled her hair tight to her face with her fingers, held it there for a moment. She rouged her cheeks, her earlobes. Lined dark kohl on her green eyes. Used her pinky to apply her blood-red lipstick.

Her gaze flickered over to him. “You like watching me get ready?”

He turned away, burying his face in his hands. Her laughter trickled high. “Oh, Markos, you’re such fun!”

His chest burned. “I’ll wait for you out in the hall.”

Finding his feet, he pushed away the chair, reaching for the door. But she had crossed the room and now planted her hand over his. He turned even as she slid close, her hand on his chest. He hadn’t noticed how small she was, really, without her costumes, or wrapped in her vamp persona. Now, she seemed almost petite, even…needy. Especially since the tease had left her eyes. Her fragrance wound around him, tugging at him.

The hero is watching a girl getting dressed, and I use the description to heighten the temptation and lure for him. The subtleties of words like blood-red, his chest burning, her fragrance winding around him, tugging-all words that suggest temptation, or being lured into trouble.

Great wordsmithing is about using every word to its full effect, and creating paragraphs that do double duty—inform as well as add feeling to the scene. In this way, you’re adding and emotional sense to the story without telling the reader how to feel.

How do you word paint for emotional effect?

Tip #1: Create a Metaphorical word pool. 
As you write, your words will tend toward specific verbs and nouns. Taking a step away from these, you’ll find that they might fall in categories of description.

For example, describing the sky, you might say that the clouds swirled against a canvass of blue. Okay, “swirled” and “canvass” both evoke a sense of “painting.” You now have your metaphorical category. Look for other “painting words” as you continue the description – brush, paint, mix, blend, stir. You can also go further, and take from the mind of the painter, or even use well known painters to bring in emotional metaphor.

Eg: lavender splotched the canvass of blue, as if the painter, frustrated, took his brush and swept across with angry, thick strokes.

Tips #2: Pick Verbs that convey the FEELING of what you are describing. 
Marcos feels like he’s being gulped, or eaten, going into the jaws of the cave, and I wanted to convey a sense of panic as he goes inside. So I used words of violence: Speared, rumbled, scrabbled, raked.

If I were describing a giant crater in the earth, one made by a meteor, I might use words like jagged, and ripped, and bruised.

But if I were describing a hole that would become my long desired swimming pool, I’d go with, scooped, or even carved from the earth. By the way, sometimes, if I’m having trouble finding my metaphorical pool, I just write the description, and see what verbs I naturally use. From there, I can find the metaphorical pool. (I.e., in this one, I think if ice cream with the verbs I used for the pool description).

Tip #3: Give your POV character a physical response to the description. 

Ie, Marcos is hot, so the water is cool, yet dangerous. He has mixed emotions about being there – so I show that in the verbs I use.

Note the subtle tension in these sentences: The cool lick (a positive feeling) of it scooped his breath (negative), slicked from his body the heat of the day. (positive) He surfaced fast, gulped air, and dove back to the ocean floor… (negative).

Tip #4: You could also use a metaphor that captures the physical response, something that would give a similar physical response. 

For example, in my pool example, I could say: Staring at the dark expanse, edged with rich, chocolate curls of earth, I tasted the cool water on my lips, sweet and sloppy, drenching me. A shiver of delight shimmed right down to my belly and I could hardly wait to dive in.

Obviously, I’m using the feeling of eating ice cream, and equating it with my dreams of diving into my pool.

Note: Don’t use TOO many metaphors – one strong one will do. But find the right one, and use it well.

Go! Write something brilliant!

TWEETABLES
Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, BarbourSteeple HillSummerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-time Christy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.