I am working diligently on my first novel, but it is not without its challenges. Finding chunks of time to climb into my characters’ lives is one of them. Recently, though, I have discovered an even more troubling problem: that of writing descriptively.
If only my characters could just sit in a room and talk for 200 pages! When I am exploring their thoughts or creating their dialogue, the words flow effortlessly. However, when I have to describe how she left the room or what the storefront looked like or how the air felt and the buildings appeared as she walked (or stepped or stumbled or . . .) down the street, I falter. I find myself relying on redundant, trite, predictable turns of phrase just to move past the scene. Otherwise, I will sit there for minutes on end, pondering how to uniquely express the way her feet touched the ground.
In addition to great verbs and adjectives, I feel like I need a Thesaurus just to look up replacements for “just,” “so,” and “really.” I think they must comprise 10% of my 11,000+ words, so far.
Perhaps, those words come later, in the second or third draft, after the story has been released in full on the page, and my mind can rest and fill out the details. Because it’s the spaces between the characters’ thoughts and dialogue that fill in the story and give it structure (at least for my story).
What’s frustrating is how vividly my mind captures each scene. I can visualize each room, building, person, street, and accessory, but to convey it to my reader in a worthwhile and interesting way is so painstaking. When I consider the writers who can spend a whole page describing someone’s front yard, and you don’t want to miss a word of it because you feel like you’re at home there, I am put to shame.
Truth be told, I am very picky about descriptive passages. When I read, I find myself plodding through them or skimming over them, if they don’t drive the plot sufficiently. That is, until I come across something of such great beauty that I slow down and savor each word. For example:
(Can I just say before I continue that, in looking for such a passage, I pulled out a couple of my favorite books and promptly got lost in one of them again. Oops.)
“For twenty-two years, I existed as that murky shadow at the far edge of your peripheral vision, a faint reminder that there are those among the living who are exceptional at no level. My head down, my manner of dress benign and colorless, I drifted through life with singular purpose: never to draw attention to myself. Fearing both judgment and recognition, I scuttled along the fringes, noiselessly.” Remembering Blue, by Connie May Fowler
Or, here, where the author speaks to our topic directly:
“But all through the Book, even in the dreadful parts, the language would now and then suddenly affect her like an enchantment. The peculiarities of Father Sprigg’s delivery worried her not at all. It was as though his gruff voice tossed the words roughly into the air, separate particles of no great value, and immediately they fell again transmuted, like the music of a peal of bells, or raindrops shot through with sunshine, and vista upon vista of unobtainable beauty opened before her mind.” Gentian Hill, by Elizabeth Goudge
What I discovered as I paged through these books was that every word is familiar to me. Perhaps, it isn’t new words I seek, it’s the imagery and connection they create as I weave them thoughtfully together. I love Goudge’s flowery descriptions- they lift my spirit- but I am consumed by very banality of Mattie’s existence. I connect right into her character, and each sentence, in its gritty reality, rings true deep within me.
In the end, it is a matter of finding my voice as an author, of identifying not merely with the surface images of my mind but the deeper reality within them, to write words from the inside out, instead of the outside in. When I understand the soul of my characters, their behaviors and even their words will come alive.
Now the question is, do I care enough about my characters to invest myself in knowing them intimately? Up to this point, I don’t honestly think I have; they were merely a means to an end. Can I make them more? That remains to be seen.
Fellow writers, I’d love to hear how you develop your characters and create meaningful descriptive language. How do you connect into the inner life of your story to share it with the world?