“For me, a page of good prose is where one hears the rain and the noise of the battle. It has the power to give grief or universality that lends it a youthful beauty.” —John Cheever
Sometimes a strong noun or verb is insufficient to evoke much in our readers. Word pictures take time to write, but if succinct, they bless readers’ experiences.
Word Pictures That Work
1. “She strutted ahead, stabbed the wooden stairs with her spiked heels, and unlocked the front door.” Dry as Rain by Gina Holmes
“Stomped up the stairs” would’ve left out much about the woman with OCD.
2. “Did she dare? She knew Aunt Nita wouldn’t begrudge her a piece of canvas. But painting again…could she recapture that girl who was willing to open her eyes wide enough to see past the boundaries of have-tos and shoulds and let color spill into something more than all the right places and shapes? Maybe it had been too long.” Wish You Were Here by Beth K. Vogt
This rewrite wouldn’t have captured the nostalgia: But could she paint again like the girl she used to be, one who didn’t follow all the rules?
3. “There, in the shadows, stood our patio table set for two. She’d adorned it with a tablecloth and the silverware she only dragged out on holidays. Cloth napkins fanned out from empty wineglasses, which were paired beside crystal goblets of water. Candlelight flickered up from the center of the table and the iron sconces that hung on the brick wall behind us. Balmy night air wafted in through the screen, making the flames bend and bow.” Dry as Rain by Gina Holmes
Phrases like: “the good silverware;” “napkins were stuck in empty wineglasses next to goblets;” and “candles and wall sconces lit the area” would give setting descriptors. But they’d fail to set the mood or tell anything about the character’s wife.
4. “As the sun sets, the cabin gets dark inside, too dark to read. He didn’t pay the electric bill again. I hope he pays it before Christmas or I won’t hear the songs on the radio.” Words” by Ginny Yttrup
I feel the loneliness of the child, and I don’t like her missing mother’s boyfriend.
5. “Even the wind held its breath as the gathering of warriors stood solemnly around the altar at the stern of the ship. No part of the wooden deck was sheltered from the high sun burning unchallenged in a cloudless sky. The victory fire, renewed with faggots of oak and rowan, licked at them with hungry forked tongues.” Maire by Linda Windsor
I feel the heat!
6. “Mother turned to Daddy and tried to smile, but it was little more than a ripple of sorrow passing over her lips.” Sweet Mercy by Ann Tatlock.
A fresh way to show a sad smile.
7. “His smile was a slow lift of the lips.” There You’ll Find Me by Jenny B. Jones
Much better than: He smiled slowly.
Great word pictures like these evoke images and feelings in readers. Click to tweet.
How would you rewrite the following? The carousel took him back to another time.
Great lessons here Zoe! Thanx for the reminders.
Hi Mary, I just went back and worked on adding word pictures to a scene. I thought I’d better take my own advice.
Grandpa gave me a choice, ride the ostrich, or sit with him in the sleigh. So here I am holding onto a pole and sittin’ high on a bird going nowhere. Not up. Not down. Stupid animal—beak open and legs sticking out in opposite directions
Daddy let me ride the zebra all by myself. Rise and press forward, rise and press forward. My striped mount galloped onward as the carousel spun and mirrors reflected my adventure.
Slinging his leg over the camel my daddy whooped that we were making the most of his furlough. Music bellowed like a beast, the notes pounding inside me. Colored lights chased each other round and round.
Now, as the music starts, Grandpa stands beside me and puts his hand on my back. I close my eyes and breathe in the same scent that daddy wore. Pipe organ music peels like at the funeral. Daddy passed away, but not me. I’m going nowhere.
Great job, Marcia! I feel like I’m on the carousel and in the child’s mood.
Powerful, Marcia. Layers of feeling and compelling.
Zoe, those are excellent examples of showing. We can all learn from reading great descriptions. Thank you.
You’re welcome, Jim. I love when I come across a word picture example that reels me in.
It is an intricate balance we do, showing enough to involve the reader, but not too much, or we lose them. I guess that is what makes a great writer, knowing that juggling act.
Great post, Zoe.
You are so right, Jane. It is a balancing act. That’s why I like my automatic reader to read my scenes to me. With his help, I more often catch too much .