During my role playing session last night, an interesting topic came up. We started talking about different ways to make vivid descriptions. Anyone who has done tabletop role playing knows that if the person running the game can’t describe things well, it creates a boring game. The same is true for novels, essays, really anything that is written. It’s even true, in slightly different way, for paintings and drawings.
The key to vividness is accuracy. Have the scene firmly in mind, thinking of all the details about it, and then describe the scene while trying to engage the audience’s senses. Think about what it would look like, sound like, feel like. Then think about first impressions. You might get something like this:
“She stood on a sandy, lemon colored plain, vainly blinking to clear the fine, flourlike dust that lifted in swirls and puffs every time she made a move. As she wrapped her scarf firmly about her nose and mouth, she looked around at the looming, knifelike mountains. Even from this distance, they looked like black obsidian, carved and tortured by time. Her mouth tasted like dust and she shivered in the thin wind.”
The audience knows what flour is like, they’ve all had dust in their mouth, they may know what obsidian looks like and even if they don’t, they know what black looks like. They have a higher chance of connecting with the character with this paragraph than if you said
“She was standing on a yellow plain. She had dust in her eyes and it made her blink. She wrapped her scarf around her face and looked at the mountains, which were dark and brooding. It was cold.”
Active vs. Passive voice
The above paragraphs also demonstrate the difference between active and passive voice. I’m really not the queen of active voice, yet I know that when I use it in my writing, things come alive. Everything becomes more vivid.
When you use a cliche, your reader stops thinking. You want your reader to stay engaged with what you have to say. So try to avoid cliches whenever possible. Cliches also lead to inaccuracy. The conversation I mentioned at the beginning of this article started about a cliche. In describing a planet, I had said it was a “blue green marble hanging before you in space, a golden yellow sun shining beyond.”
My player had an epiphany and realized that not only is that a cliche, but it’s also inaccurate! If both planet and sun are in front of you, you’d be viewing the dark side of the planet, with at best a crescent of light side showing. So I came up with this description.
“Ahead of your ship, you see a razor thin blue green crescent, flecked with white, cradling a glowing black opal, the golden primary shining beyond.”
Much better, more evocative, and no cliche to be found.
In general, it’s best to engage your reader’s senses and keep them interested in your story. Avoiding over-used phrases will help a lot. Put yourself in the story, see, hear and feel what’s around you in your imagination, and your readers will be able to do the same. Good description can make your writing truly come alive!
Bonus: how to be vivid – for artists
Many of these tips can be used when you are painting or drawing, too. Contrast is important if you are trying to make a strong visual impression. Pay attention to where the light falls, where the shadows lie, and how deep they are. Careful observation will help you here. Even if you make art from your imagination, observing real world things can make your art great. Faithful depiction of the details can make the same difference that good description does in a story. All my favorite artists pay attention to contrast and also small details. Sure, that swordsman has a belt, but are there signs of wear on it? Are his boots new, or are they a bit slouched, scuffed, and dusty? You get the idea.