I found this quotation on Facebook the other day and have been mulling it over in my mind ever since. As a reader, I realise it is what I look for in a book too. I want to be able to identify with the characters, to see what they see, hear what they hear, smell what they smell, and so on through the senses. And yes, the authors who can help me do that are the ones I go back to time and again until I’ve read all the books they have produced.
They are the authors who achieve that vividness in their writing.
As a writer, I analyse as I read. I analyse how they achieve vividness, and try to emulate their methods in my own writing.
The readers among you might enjoy my findings and look for how the authors you read achieve that vividness, and the writers among you might enjoy to put my findings into practice as you work.
In simple terms, I found it is necessary to find and use appropriate descriptive words. As the quotation says, “Focus on trying to be good with vividness.” Remember, your goal is to help your reader see, hear, taste, smell and feel what your characters see, hear, taste, smell and feel.
Music is one of the most evocative of mediums. It can be calming, relaxing, energising, make you feel elated, happy, miserable or sad. It can get you up on your feet to dance, or settle you to sleep in your bed. The beat can have you tapping your foot or clapping your hands. So how can a writer convey that in words?
When describing music or other sounds, I find it helps if I listen carefully with my eyes closed, and pay attention to how it makes me feel. I know that if I can’t feel it, it will be impossible to help my readers feel it.
What have you found helpful?
As a writer, what words would you use to convey a heavy beat – pounding, thumping, or drumming? Does it make you think of heavy rain? Hailstones? A gentle shower? Is it rhythmic or discordant? How are you going to describe that to your readers? What about the sound of water running? Will it whoosh, drip or dribble. You’ll want to find words to convey that.
How about this for an example of using the sound of hailstones? It’s from Makeshift Memories, my work in progress:
She had seen the hammers. Muckle great beasts. Not as the one her father uses to thump fence posts into hard earth, nor less as the one she uses to fix the wood to the stave when she aids in the work. What she saw as she sat beside Sheamus up at the waterworks were long, thick shafts with great iron heads the like of which she never did set eye upon afore. Having the picture of him sitting astride the rock with four strong men raining heavy blows on the tiny drill he held atween his legs was fearsome. Lying in her cot of a night of winter hail, listening to it heavy on the roof, coming down with a fierce speed, she sees in her dreams four hammers raining down to its tempo and she squirms and sweats in her covers.
Sometimes it’s good to start by describing a sound. Use onomatopoeia, not just to describe the actual sound. Use words that sound like it in your narrative. Let your readers hear what you hear. Let the sound take them on a journey.
Let me share another excerpt from Makeshift Memories, as an example:
Matt knows the route I like to take through the park and we walk through the reed beds on the squiggly boardwalk, built to traverse them like a long wiggly bridge. The wind swishes through the reeds, making them sing with a magical sound. “Listen,” I encourage him, stopping on the bridge. “Wh-o-o-sh! Who-o-o-sh!” I mimic the susurration, my voice hushed, soft and gentle as the air.
Close my eyes and I’m in Africa, standing in the back of a truck in savannah land, watching lemon grass sway, smelling it on the warm breeze. I’ve never been to Africa, but it doesn’t stop me imagining the scene. With little effort, Edinburgh’s dark, damp night turns to blazing African sunshine, clear blue skies stretch for miles, and I’m a million miles away enjoying the warmth of the sun on my back, allowing the breeze to whisk away the remnants of my earlier discomforts.
Do you see how, even before the sound is introduced, a word that sounds like it is used – the wind swishes. Then after the sound is described – Wh-o-o-sh! Wh-o-o-sh! – susurration, hushed, savannah, sway, whisk – all words that are reminiscent of the sound of the rushes. So many ‘s’ sounds! Try them out. Say them slowly in a hushed, drawn-out voice. Isn’t that fun? Can you ‘see’ and ‘hear’ the rushes sway in the wind? The sound transported Caitlin to the African savannah. Can you follow her? She was helped in that she and Matt were on their way home after watching the classic film, Out of Africa, but perhaps the sound helped you see, hear and smell something similar.
When wanting to describe something visual, imagine your pen as a paintbrush. Stroke words out of your keyboard. Coax them till they form the picture. Use words that are vivid, graphic, colourful, evocative.
When describing a yellow dress, it’s not enough to say it’s yellow. There are so many shades of yellow. Is it citrus lemon, sunshine gold, daffodil yellow, yellow neon? Each one is different, each one will show up in your reader’s mind when they read your description.
Here is an example:
The dress I’m going to wear tonight is hidden in the wardrobe till later. I want it to be a surprise for Paul. He hasn’t seen it yet and has no idea of the peaceful hours I’ve spent sewing while he’s been out and about. It makes me smile every time I open the wardrobe door, push aside the things it hides behind, and see my handiwork hanging there. Inspired by the pale, creamy-yellow, woodland primroses that bloom in our garden every spring, designed and fashioned over the summer months after their faded beauty folded and faded further, it has been such a delight to make. Impossible to improve on nature, all I could do was allow the delicate flowers to inform my eye and guide my hand as I sketched and painted, desiring to capture the essence of their beauty in the spring to infuse into my work in the summer.
The georgette material I sought out is gossamer thin and beautiful, the colour soft as sunshine on a misty day, and the dress slips over my still-trim figure in flattering, floaty, fluted layers to just below my knees.
Being so fine, it is one of the most difficult materials I have ever worked with, but worth every painstaking moment of the hours and days it took to cut and sew. Even the buttery silk lining had to be handled gently. Never have I worked so slowly and never have I been so rewarded for my care.
My fingers melt with pleasure as they linger on the fabric, and I long to feel my creation slip over my body to caress my skin. ~~~ Rosanna from Gold Plated by Christine Campbell
Can you picture Rosanna’s dress? Pale, creamy-yellow, woodland primrose – their faded beauty – delicate – the colour soft as sunshine on a misty day – the buttery silk lining. Can you see the delicate colour it is? Can you feel the lightness of the material? Georgette material – gossamer thin – floaty, fluted layers. Can you almost feel the dress slip over your body to caress your skin?
We’ve referenced two of the senses we want to evoke in our readers – three, when you consider how Caitlin feels the sun on her back and the breeze on her skin, and how Rosanna’s dress feels as she touches it and as she slips it over her body.
Perhaps we can talk in the comments about the words we might use to convey the other senses – and perhaps in another blogpost at another time. 🙂
If you’d like to read how Rosanna vividly describes some of the other dresses she creates for herself and her friends, you can buy Gold Plated as paperback or ebook here.
And you can find eight other novels by Christine Campbell here.