Describing Things Afresh in the Story You’re Writing
When you describe an object in creative writing, a person or a place, finding the right words can be difficult if you want to avoid falling back on cliché. Readers have become so used to certain words and phrases that the descriptions fail to see the scene vividly.
Adjectives (words that qualify a noun) can be useful, but are often overused. Usually, you can find a more precise noun; for instance, if you want to write ‘dark blue’, try a more precise shade such as ‘navy’ or ‘indigo’; instead of ‘strong wind’ you can say ‘gale’, and instead of ‘very ugly’ try using ‘hideous’.
Watch out for frequent multiple adjectives, such as when you find yourself writing: ‘The tall, handsome man crossed the wide and busy street to look into the soft, blue and melting eyes of the blond, svelte, well-dressed girl standing on big red stiletto heels and carrying a big leather bag with . . .’
Go through your work and check all your adjectives to make sure that you haven’t just used the default one – ‘a tall, dark stranger’ or ‘soft, white hands’. Take out any adjectives that are too predictable or frequent and replace them with a few well-chosen ones.
Adverbs are words that modify a verb; they usually end with ‘ly’. Adverbs can also easily be overused and so make it harder for readers to visualise what you’re describing. You can usually replace an adverb and verb with a stronger verb, such as ‘dashed’ for ‘ran quickly’ or ‘crawled’ for ‘moved slowly’.
Avoid all adverbs used to describe dialogue – ‘he said angrily’, or ‘she said nervously’. Instead make sure that the dialogue sounds angry or nervous and so speaks for itself.
Adverbs sometimes repeat information that’s already been given, such as ‘He leapt about excitedly’ or ‘She smiled happily’ – here the adverbs add nothing. Get rid of all intensifiers – words such as ‘very’, ‘extremely’, ‘incredibly’, ‘exceedingly’, ‘remarkably’, ‘totally’, ‘completely’ and ‘absolutely’.
Adverbs are sometimes used because the writer’s too lazy to think about the detail. For instance, if you write ‘His mother had died recently’, it may be because you can’t be bothered to think exactly when his mother had died. The problem is that ‘recently’ is imprecise: if it means about a week, readers expect the character to be grief stricken; if it means within the last year, the grief may have faded.
When you describe something, try to think of it freshly, as if you’ve never come across it before. Ask yourself whether you can find a simple way to describe it, so that readers respond to it anew.
Here are some exercises that force you to find new, better ways to describe familiar objects and experiences:
Describe an orange, without using the words ‘orange’, ‘round’ or ‘juicy’.
Describe eating some chocolate, without using the words ‘sweet’ or ‘bitter’, ‘smooth’ or ‘brown’.
Describe the sound of an aeroplane taking off, without using ‘rumble’ or ‘roar’.