Each October, the Van Cortlandt Manor, a few miles north of Manhattan, hosts the Great Pumpkin Blaze. We’ve never been able to get tickets—by the time we got around to thinking about autumn and Halloween, it was always sold out. This year we didn’t leave it to chance. We got tickets in early September, and I was stoked (or insert corresponding millennial word. I’d built it up to be larger than life, and I’m happy to report that the Great Pumpkin Blaze did not disappoint! It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. I can’t even describe it.
How many times have you written sentences like the ones above? *Raises hand* I think many writers experience this stumbling block, knowingly or unknowingly, because nearly every manuscript I have edited included these types of meaningless sentences. Why?
When I’ve written something like this, it’s usually because I was so excited/confused/thrilled/angry/mortified I found it difficult to put words to my feelings. But that creates a problem because…that’s my job. As a writer, it is my job to find the words. If I can’t accurately share my experience, how will I bring you, the reader, along? How will I convey what it was like to be there?
On the other hand, some writers think these phrases will allow the reader to use his or her imagination. If I just write that it was amazing, these writers believe, the reader will fill in the gap and supply his or her own experience. That’s why people read, isn’t it?
Well, yes, but no. (See what I did there?) The problem is that words and sentences like these steal power from your prose. The reader skims right over them. They mean nothing to the reader because they don’t connect to the character’s viewpoint (or the writer for essays and memoir).
Connect with the Character
Be sure that every word in your story is working hard to develop the character or move the plot forward. Let’s look at a few examples.
- The chocolate cake was delicious! What aspect of the cake was delicious? The creamy frosting? The fluffy yet moist layers? For something as delicious as chocolate cake, let’s find a more descriptive word.
- The size of the enormous bathroom impressed Jane. What does that mean, exactly? I live in NYC, and if you don’t, I’m going to guess that our definitions of enormous are very different.
- When Mary turned around, Paul was struck by her beauty. What is it about Mary that Paul finds beautiful? Maybe Paul digs unibrows. That will tell us a lot about Paul and lead to better characterization.
Write Vivid Description
- Define the object not its opposite. Some descriptors are so overused they are now meaningless, such as beautiful, delicious, amazing, etc. The value of these words lies in telling the reader what the situation is not. Mary is beautiful, not homely. The cake is delicious rather than disgusting. They define the opposite, which can be a valuable tool when used with intention, but these words don’t work hard enough to craft an accurate image for the reader.
- Describe the scene by focusing on what would stand out to the character. While the size of the bathroom may indeed be enormous, is that the most unique feature? Maybe the fixtures are 24-karat gold. Maybe there is a Chihuly sculpture hanging from the ceiling.
- Specificity is your friend. This is the core of writing descriptive sentences. Usually the more specific you can be, the better. If your character is driving a big car, ask yourself, how big? Big as compared to what? Is the fact that the car is big important to the scene or the character? Note that specific doesn’t mean piling on a bunch of adjectives or (gasp) adverbs.
If these suggestions resonated with you, consider signing up for my new online class Writing About Place: Five Days to Immersive Setting. All of these tips are useful in crafting a setting that becomes another character in your story. (Shh…we’re actually going to apply characterization techniques to setting!) I’ll be announcing the details at the end of the month. In the meantime, check out my previous post about descriptive writing and sensory writing.
- RIP Tom Petty. And thank you for providing the soundtrack to so much of my youth.
- I just finished Brene Brown’s new book Braving the Wilderness, which was particularly helpful after the events of recent weeks (months?). I had the good fortune to see her in NYC on her book tour. At the end of her talk, she asked us to turn to our neighbors and offer peace. That small action—looking a stranger in the eye and wishing her well—was surprisingly cathartic. I know cyberspace lacks that kind of resonance, but I want to keep it going, however small. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be at peace.