3 Layers of Descriptive Prose

This month, I continue my short series of posts on how I write descriptive prose.

I love descriptive prose — the kind so vivid I have to pause and relish it a moment longer.

In my last post, I deconstructed some of my favourite passages of description in an effort to find what makes them tick.

And in this post, I distill those findings and articulate my own process for writing descriptively.

Here, then, are the three layers I employ when I’m trying to describe something.

Sensory Images

First and foremost, and I think one of the easiest to achieve, is the use of sensory images.

Any writer worth their salt will tell you this is the primary consideration when describing anything.

But why is that?

We are very visual creatures — much of our sensory input naturally comes via our eyes. Our tendencies in describing things, therefore, lean heavily toward a visual perspective.

While there is nothing wrong with this, some of our other senses are older, more primordial, more visceral. And to describe something using them can create a much stronger impression.

Let’s take a look at a sunset as an example…

The clouds glowed a burnt orange in the sunset. Lilac trees sketched a black silhouette. The evening breeze was cool against my skin.

This gives a good impression of the scene. But it feels very flat and ordinary, as if someone is describing a photo and not actually living it.

Now if we add some non-visual sensory input…

The clouds glowed a burnt orange in the sunset. Lilac trees, their scent sweetening the air, sketched a black silhouette. The evening breeze was cool against my skin and gently rustled the leaves.

The second attempt (not my best work, I’ll admit) engages more senses, making it feel more tangible, more real.

The idea with descriptive prose is to root the reader in your world. The more senses you engage, the more the reader will feel as if they are truly there.

Detailed Images

The next trick in my arsenal is using detailed images — that is, more precise descriptions.

While employing the senses gives the description dimension, using detail makes it feel authentic.

Think of your most vivid memories — what aspects stand out the most?

Every one of us has a unique experience in life, even for events we attend communally or for objects we own that are similar.

We each remember different details, according to our perspective and our backstories.

This should also be true of your characters and your narrators.

Now while your main character has never physically visited the Sistine Chapel, you need to be able make the reader believe otherwise — that your character they really has smelled the sour sweat and blanched perfume of the crowds under that glorious ceiling.

Take our sunset example from previous section, and add a little more detail…

The cumulus clouds glowed a burnt orange in the sunset. Lilac trees — their blossoms peppered with insects, their scent sweetening the air — sketched a black silhouette. The evening breeze was cool against my skin and rustled the leaves with a sound like summer rain.

The scene feels more immersive now — the sensory inputs from early now feel fleshed out.

On a side note, be careful not to bury the reader in detail — there should be enough for authenticity, but not so much as to bore the reader. (This passage is probably borderline.)

Remember, the idea is to give your description perspective — to make the reader believe your character/narrator has truly lived the experience.

Unique Images

The last layer in my salvo is the old writers’ adage about finding your uniqueness.

It’s well known that all the stories have been written. The best we can hope for is reinterpreting them in a way that is unique enough to sound almost original.

I think the same can be said for writing description — just about every way of describing something has been done before. The most well known and most abused of these are the cliches.

Avoid them. (Like the plague.)

Finding your description’s uniqueness is a difficult aspect to quantify — it has a sense of the x-factor about it.

It’s not something I can get away with a lot of the time. Mainly because it is not easy.

But if it’s done well, it can create a lasting impression with your reader.

One trick I like to employ is to marry objects or concepts that are unexpected.

Let’s tweak our detailed sunset with some unique images…

In the sunset, the cumulus clouds glowed Burnt Turmeric — the colour of her lipstick. Lilac trees — their blossoms peppered with insects and sweetening the air with a hint of acetone — sketched a black silhouette. The evening breeze was cool against my skin and rustled the leaves with a sound like nails cascading down a window pane.

Once again, not my best work, but you get the idea. (Though, I do like the blossoms smelling a little of acetone.)

This is an aspect of description that is driven heavily by your character’s/narrator’s perspective and voice.

Finding uniqueness in your description is the most difficult part of this process to pull off. But if you can, it is truly rewarding.

The goal is to make your description, and hence your writing, feel like something new.

The golden rule you always need to remember when writing description — never let it become the main focus.

The story should always be king.

If you let the descriptive prose take over, your writing can come across as pretentious and self-aggrandising.

The end result of the example I’ve been playing with is an ugly and unwieldy creature — it doesn’t read well, it’s too busy, and set in among a larger piece of work, it would jerk the reader out of the story flow.

I would edit it back. Hard. (But the hint of acetone would definitely stay!)

There is an art to good descriptive prose. My process — using the senses, using detail, then finding uniqueness — works for me. But it doesn’t come easily.

How do you go about constructing your beautiful descriptions?

(Next month, I shall look at how I weave this imagery into a larger piece of work.)

All images from Pixabay

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