A painter, illustrator, or digital artist (above) endeavors to create an image that captures a moment in time. As they add layers to their work, it begins to evoke a mood that will hopefully capture the imagination of everyone who sees it. In the image above, the fog creates an ethereal poignancy to the setting. Why are these two people alone, dancing in a gazebo while a sailing boat waits offshore? How different would the picture be if the gazebo was empty? What if instead of fog, it was a glorious sunset?
This is the job of an artist–to create an image the evokes emotion, mystery, imagination, wonder. They use canvas, paper, pixels, and a myriad of other mediums to bring their art to us.
For writers, our medium is words. Our words are all our readers have to see and hear and feel the worlds we create. If we do it well, we capture their imagination and they happily enter the reality we created to see what happens next. If we don’t do it well, it can read like a laundry list.
Some people go overboard with descriptions, pages and pages describing everything in the most minute detail. Even if the prose is beautiful, eventually readers will tire of it and skip ahead. I’ve done it. I know many others who have as well.
So what do we do?
We already know that art is supposed to set a mood, or stimulate an emotion. And we, as word artists, want to do the same. Can you tell the difference between these two descriptions?
- The front porch was dilapidated. Paint was peeling off the weathered boards, and there was an indention in the floor by the porch swing.
- As she stepped onto the dilapidated front porch, with its weathered and peeling paint, she noticed an indentation in the flooring made by years of people scuffing their feet as they rocked on the porch swing. She had been one of those people.
The first is an accurate description of the porch. But the second creates a sense of nostalgia.
How does your character view their surroundings? Do they care that the doorway into the living room is three feet from the front door? If they’re blind, or have compulsions, then maybe they do. They also might care if they know there’s something bad waiting in the dark of the living room, and they’re trying to remind themselves of the layout of the house so they can gain an advantage. Otherwise…they probably don’t care. And if your character doesn’t care, your reader won’t care.
Look at your writing. Are your descriptions a laundry list of what can be found in the area? Or, do you invoke your inner artist and make them matter?
I say, let’s let our inner artists out. The payoff is more powerful, engaging fiction. Who doesn’t want that?