Writing descriptive passages is much like painting a scene. Both artists and writers must decide what to leave in and what to ignore. Joyce Hicks, my favorite watercolor artist, has this to say about painting scenes:
“The most common mistake artists make, as beginners, is to follow the natural tendency to try to say too much in a painting. Doing so leads to confusion and overshadows the piece’s main message. Remember that less is more, and knowing what to leave out is far more important than how much you leave in. As your skill and experience grows, you’ll learn to eliminate unnecessary clutter from your work and to focus on composition instead. If your goal is to take your work to the next level, you must first understand the meaning of design as it relates to art before you can move forward as an artist. You need to visualize your subject in simple terms so you can paint relationships between shape, color and value instead of painting ‘things.’
“For many who first begin to paint, the tendency is to act as a human camera recording subjects as accurately as possible instead of using time-honored principles and elements of design to produce works of art that are more pleasing and worthwhile. Knowledge is power, and the lack of it is what leads to failure. Fear of failure blocks the way to bold, confident statements and paintings that look as if they had almost painted themselves. It’s not enough to simply want to paint beautiful pictures; you must also arm yourself with necessary skills and knowledge if you are to have any hope of doing so.”
How true this is for writers, including me. I don’t want to be a human camera, yet I do want readers to “see” the things that surround my characters. This concept is especially challenging as I write a memoir, because as I try and bring memories to life, my heart wants to include everything. These are techniques I use:
1. Ask yourself, “If I wrote this description as poetry, what would I include?” Good poetry is clutter free. Imagine the classic poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” and think how Robert Frost might have written that scene in a novel. He chose to use the most vivid, painterly images in his poem, and they could be transformed into a compelling prose passage.
2. Work descriptions into the plot and combine them with action. This technique eliminates the stress of writing long passages and keeps the story moving.
3. Don’t be afraid to let your readers use their imaginations. Give them the bare bones and let their minds fill in the rest.
4. Since you’re writing from the viewpoint of a character, only include what that person would notice. Avoid having a narrator (you) interrupt the story to describe scenery or background information. Stay inside one character’s head. If you’re writing in first person, don’t have the character stray too far from the story.
5. Use strong, active words and concrete details instead of vague, hazy descriptions.
6. Remember, knowing what to leave out is far more important than how much you leave in.
We artists sometimes cram too much information into a story or in a painting. Joyce Hicks says, “Doing so leads to confusion and overshadows the piece’s main message.” As authors, we need to recognize the most vital message within each passage, then check to see if our writing supports that message without confusing, boring, or distancing readers.
We are painting with words, are we not?
Sammie Justesen is the author of Dialogue for Writers, a new book from NorLightsPress.
Sammie is also president of the Lawrence County Art Association
Joyce Hicks’ new book is available for preorder on Amazon:
Enjoy her blog at: http://jhicksfineart.com/blog/