My dad loaded the last pieces of luggage into the back of the station wagon. While spreading sleeping bags on top of the cooler and suitcases, he told my sister and me how “comfy” we would be riding in our “cozy bed.” At first, we thought it was fun, cuddled together, whispering and giggling. But as the miles clicked under the tires, we got tired of being jostled around, unable to sit up. The noxious odor of car exhaust combined with the cramped space soon became claustrophobic. My sister’s elbows and knees dug into my side. I pushed her. She pushed back. Our giggles eventually turned into hysterical squeals and squabbles. Then we would get The Warning. “If you girls don’t settle down, there is going to be trouble,” our father’s voice roared. And before our drive was over, we would be punished.
I wrote this essay in a Descriptive Language Workshop as part of an exercise to “Describe a place you hated as a kid.” The objective was to “convey, rather than convince” by using descriptive details instead of abstraction. In this blog, I’ll share a few techniques that can help you describe the characters, scenes, and emotions in your stories.
Describe a Person without Adjectives or Adverbs
Without using adjectives or adverbs, you are forced to evoke a character through their words and actions, which results in a more vivid character portrayal. For example, a directive, action-oriented leader might be described as follows:
In constant motion, she drives, commands, asserts, and concludes. Then moves on to her next agenda item, forging ahead and pulling others in her wake. I follow, wanting to finish our conversation. I hop-skip to keep pace with her strides. She’s through the door. As it closes in my face, I hear her closing words, ”Make sure you get the signature.”
Go Beyond the What You See
Most people default to visual cues when describing the world around them. We see colors, shapes, sizes, spatial relationships, and movements and can easily put them into words. To weave a more complex tapestry of sensory details into your stories, delve into your other four senses: smell, touch, taste, and sound. Try the following exercises to practice conjuring experiences through the other senses:
- Taste of Christmas
- Sound of walking in winter
- Smell of spring
- Feel of the wind
For example, would you imagine the wind as a gentle breeze that cools and soothes, or is it a slap in the face as you step out into a frigid winter day? Thinking of your scene with specificity helps you evoke these discerning details.
Guided Imagery Exercise to Describe Scenery
I use this activity in my workshops to help participants practice conveying the scenes in their stories through all five senses. The guided imagery and deep breathing stimulates the right-brain waves and shuts down left-brain, linear thinking, opening your creative pathways. I like to have participants imagine their favorite place, because it’s an easy way to illustrate the process, but the technique can be used to conjure other places and scenes. You can have someone else cue you through it or guide yourself through this 2-3 minute exercise.
- Close your eyes and sit in a comfortable, neutral position. Feet flat, arms resting gently on your knees.
- Focus on your breath. Slow it down, breathing deeply on both inhales and exhales.
- Imagine you are in your favorite place.
- With each breath imagine the details of the space around you. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you taste? Stay in this place for a while allowing your body and mind to imagine this space for a minute.
- When you have soaked in all the sensory details of the space, flex your fingers, wiggle your toes, and rotate your shoulders. Drop your chin to your chest and swing your head back and forth. Blink your eyes open.
- Immediately, start writing what comes to your mind, letting the descriptive details flow with your stream of consciousness.
I’ve witnessed participants be surprised to discover that they have poetry and vivid language inside themselves. Sumara Regina Ancona Lopes shared the language she crafted to describe her favorite place during the workshop I led at the Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI) 2014 Conference in Buffalo, New York. Even though English is her second language, this exercise unleashed poetic phrases that take us to the beaches and mountains of her Brazilian homeland:
The water moves in ripples as if dancing in the soft wind. The leaves on the trees sway back and forth, back and forth, cutting the silence of the old mountains, singing a song of love to the birds flying around.