Before I wrote romance, I wrote poetry, a genre of big ideas expressed in very few words. As a poet, you don’t have the luxury of long explanations or lines of description. You hit the reader, you hit them fast and hard and with the most evocative language you can string together. While novels allow authors to use paragraphs to help them describe a character, emotion or setting, there are times in every story when a single line is all that can be spared. Perhaps it’s the appearance of a minor character or the heroine’s first impression of a manor house. Whatever it is, now that the space is tight, it’s time to get choosy with your words. It’s time to write description like a poet.
When a poet decides to introduce a setting, they can’t write long paragraphs of description. Instead, they must focus on the most pronounced details of the setting, the ones that will create an instant image in the reader’s mind while using the least amount of words. A poetic example of choosing words to instantly evoke a sense of place is the first line of Ada Cambridge’s poem, The Old Manor House.
“An old house, crumbling half away, all barnacled and lichen grown…”
In a few words, Cambridge has captured the essence of the house and the reader knows right away that this is not Blenheim Palace, but a house that, as she states later in the poem, has seen “…more than half a thousand years.”
If you only have a brief space for description, go beyond the ordinary. Don’t just describe the setting in general terms, i.e. the big ballroom. Instead, bring out one or two details that capture the essence of the place. Once you’ve picked your details, move beyond the usual metaphors and similes and find a new, unusual and visually striking way to describe them. In the example above, Cambridge uses the word “barnacled” to describe the house. Barnacles aren’t typically associated with manor houses, but the word brings to mind the image of pocked stone, rough from weather and dull in color. With a few carefully chosen words, a dilapidated stone house that has stood for centuries is brought to life for the reader.
Even when a writer has the luxury of writing a long paragraph of description, the words you choose still have a large impact on the idea you are trying to convey. As Anton Chekhov once said “Don’t tell me the moon is shining: show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Don’t tell your readers what they are seeing but use descriptive words to help them see it. Get creative with your word choices and think outside the subject matter for similes and metaphors. The thesaurus will be you new best friend.
Using a few succinct words to describe a character is another way to think like a poet. When you only have a sentence or two to describe a character, consider giving the character a specific trait or physical description. Then, like the description of the setting, use the most colorful and imaginative words you can find to highlight it. Not only does this create a believable picture of the character in the reader’s imagination but, if the character reappears later in the book, you can use this feature to help the reader recall the character from the earlier scene.
An example of this comes from William Wordsworth’s We Are Seven. One of the lines he uses to describe the little girl he is speaking with is very telling of the kind of girl she is.
She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
The child in the poem is no proper little miss in stays, but a poorer child who has been allowed to run free. “Wildly clad” indicates both the disarray of her clothes and perhaps the way she is being raised without guidance and rules, following her own wild course.
Like the little girl, poems move to their own internal rhythm, feeling fast, slow, staccato or languid depending on the subject matter of the poem and how the lines and words are arranged. How you string your chosen words together will determine the flow of your narrative and how your readers will experience the emotions and events of your story. Long lines and words will feel more languid while short ones will feel more hurried and tense. In specific scenes, the use of certain words, even whether you chose to repeat them in a line, can help emphasize tone or emotion. An example of this can be seen in the fourth line of Walt Whitman’s A Noiseless Patient Spider.
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
The repetition of the word filament adds to the line’s sense of endless work. The use of the word filament, as opposed to a harsher, shorter word like thread, lends a sense of beauty to the spider’s unending web building. Later, in line eight of the poem, Whitman will relate his own desire to create relationships to the spider’s tireless work.
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,--seeking the sphere, to connect them;
By stringing together a set of words which mimic the repeating tone of filament, the poets links the spider’s unending labor to his own. Repetition and word choice give the poem an overall steady flow while reinforcing the theme of the poem.
Arranging your words to create a flow, rhythm or pace is another way to write like a poet. As illustrated above, poems rely on rhythm to reinforce their themes. You can achieve the same effect with your own writing by playing with your words. Poets do this all the time, arranging and rearranging sentences and stanzas until the poem sounds the way we want it to. To catch the flow of your own work, I recommend reading it aloud and listening to the sound of the language, both within the context of the individual sentences and paragraphs as well as the overall feel of the novel. Anything that doesn’t roll off your tongue may be examined or reworked to maintain the chosen pace and feel of the story.
Writing description like a poet doesn’t mean rhyming or forcing your novel into a sonnet. It involves paying attention to word choices, listening to the flow of your writing and striving to use unique and powerful language choices in your story. Writing beyond the ordinary will encourage you to stretch as a writer and help bring your stories to life.
If you like description, check out my novel Engagement of Convenience. There is a lot of description in that book.