I was reading Robert B Parker's novel, Back Story, the other day and I ran across three terrific lines in the story. These lines were so good at painting a picture that I had to stop and write them down. Now, I don't want you to copy these lines and put them in your next novel. No, I want you to study the lines and see if you can add that type of description in your own novel.
What does this line make you see, feel or experience? Does it bring back memories in some way, either good memories or bad memories?
It was bright outside, and the sun was making long parallelograms on my floor.
Wow, can you feel the brilliance of that line? It tells me a couple of things. The sun is shining, duh, but it's also either late afternoon or winter. Late afternoon, the sun could be shining in a west facing window. I suppose it can be early morning coming in an east window. But it could be winter time and the sun is low in the sky coming in a south window. Does the sun warm the room? The sun could be adding tension to the room, if the person is in prison, or being held hostage and there is a time limit for when a deal has to go down.
This line took me back to a building I used to work in a couple of years ago. There were a number of windows that allowed light to make long bright rectangles across the floor.
Then a few paragraphs later someone walked through the room and Robert B Parker wrote,
Her swift passage made dust motes hover momentarily in the sunny rhomboids splashed across my office floor.
Now, I don't think the sunny rhomboids work, unless you mention the sun making long parallelograms a few paragraphs earlier. Now you can see the motes dancing in the bright light as some rise and others fall while a group of motes try to follow the person who walked past the sunny rhomboid. It gives movement to the scene and helps bring you closer to actually being in the room.
And then the last and really the best line of the book,
Susan was amazing in red silk and painful shoes.
Isn't that fantastic? It's such a simple line and other writers may have used that phrase before Robert B Parker. I'm a man, yet I can feel that Susan is wearing high heels that force her foot into an un-natural position, but she is still rocking the look. Beautiful shoes, stylish shoes, sexy shoes and yes painful shoes.
Extend Your Writing So, what can you learn from these three simple lines? Try to extend your writing by adding some visual description, using sun, shadows, smells, or touch to enhance the setting. How can you tell someone looks great, but twist it in such a way to stop the reader and have them see the situation a little different than they did before?
It's important you don't over-do this technique, but three to five times in a book and the reader will step back and think, this writer knows what they're doing and will want to read your next book to see what surprising things you say. You don't want to do this too many times because that may force the reader out of the story. It definitely forced me out of the story, because I stopped, opened a note app on my phone and dictated the lines in my great quotes folder.
How can you employ this in your own fiction? Find a section of your story where you want to slow the action. A time when you give your reader a chance to breathe and relax. Then look at the scene or chapter and determine what mood you want the scene to reflect. Is it a dark mood, a sunny outlook for the rest of the story or a scene with hidden tension?
Adding a Dark Mood If it's a dark mood you're looking to create, then think of times when you have been in a dark mood. Maybe you left the curtains closed in your bedroom, so you didn't have to see how sunny and bright it was outside. Was it late at night and the wind is blowing so hard that you hear the branches on the trees creak from the force of the wind?
Optimism and Conflict If it's sunny, is your character sitting in the sun or maybe their pet keeps moving its position as it sleeps on the floor so it stays in the sunny part of the room. How can you describe the room to add optimism about the character resolving their problems? Or do you want a mood of anticipation about the big day, game, dance, job interview, award's ceremony or a chance to ask a person to the big dance?
Description can Add Tension How do you add hidden tension to a room? Check out this article, Ramping Up Tension. If your character has made mistakes earlier in the story, (they should make at least a couple), then when they are anticipating the next big thing, have them think back on those mistakes. They're excited about the award, the sun is shining, the baby is happy; then the older child spills a drink, the baby starts crying and clouds darken the room.
Description and Irony Picture yourself in the room that your character is in. What's the temperature in the room? Is it too hot or too cold? Do they feel an unsettling breeze on their arm or their feet are cold? What sounds are you hearing? What smells linger in the room? Is it full of boys with the stench of testorone filling the space? Did someone use too much perfume or eat garlic? Is the mood somber or optimistic? How crowded is the room or is your character alone deep in thought? Is the alpha character in the room causing more tension? What is she / he wearing? Do the person's clothe's colors impact the character in any way? Or do they hate the room color, it makes them dizzy, sick or angry? It doesn't have to be much. Don't go writing twenty-five paragraphs. One line that is impactful is better than rambling for forty lines.
Sacha Black talks about adding irony to your story. That is a great way to make a line that is impactful. The line Robert B Parker uses "red silk and painful shoes" in his story. Impactful because of the irony. Can you add irony to a sentence to heighten the imagery?
I suggest you still write your first draft hot and fast as they say and then come back and look at a sentence or paragraph and see how you can alter it to add a little more visual impact for the reader.