Creating Vivid Description

Your success as a storyteller depends on your ability to create IMAGES. 

Whenever audiences or buyers hear or read a story, they immediately picture what is happening. So it is your responsibility to make your characters, your settings and the action of your stories come to life clearly and vividly.

The most common weakness of character descriptions I encounter is that they generalize. The details are broad, vague or not visual at all. They neither create a specific image, nor do they reveal anything important or emotionally involving about the character.

When you define your characters only by their functions – a boss, a mother, a teenager, a customer – that person is hard to picture and hard to care about. The same holds true when the description is a summary – giving us a character’s personality, desire or conflict with no visible evidence, and nothing to allow your reader or audience to draw their own conclusions. 

It may be true that a character is your hero’s sister-in-law, mean and vindictive, a loser or from Macon, Georgia, but none of those descriptions will help us picture them, or pull us deeper into your story. (And if you’re a screenwriter, you must omit such descriptions altogether – you can only write what the audience for your movie will see and hear on the screen.)

Instead, reveal two or three clear, vivid details about each character that convey something about that person’s nature while creating a movie in the mind of your reader. What a person wears reveals far more about her than her height, build and age.

Imagine reading about a woman whose thrift store dress was crisply ironed, and whose perfectly polished shoes hid the holes in their soles. Not only would you be able to picture the character, you would immediately know that she was desperate to hide the fact that she had fallen on hard times.

Telling a first person story about how you once “got angry” will make your speech vague and uninvolving. Instead describe how, as you waited endlessly in line for a prescription, your teeth began to clench and your face grew increasingly red. Now your audience will imagine they’re in line with you.

Detailed ACTION is more emotionally involving and revealing than solitary verbs and phrases like “went,” “entered” or  “said that.” 

In my previous newsletter I raved about the novel Lessons in Chemistry. So notice how vivid, unique and revealing this simple introduction to the book’s hero is:

Fuel for learning, Elizabeth Zott wrote on a small slip of paper before tucking it into her daughter’s lunch box. Then she paused, her pencil in midair, as if reconsidering. Play sports at recess but do not automatically let the boys win, she wrote on another slip. Then she paused again, tapping her pencil against the table. It is not your imagination, she wrote on a third. Most people are awful. She placed the last two on top.

Besides creating an immediate and involving picture of what’s happening with details about the pencil, lunch box and table, we get a sense of the character’s values, and what kind of mother she is. 

Or consider this opening scene from a Best Original Screenplay Oscar® winner:

A seven-year-old girl sits watching [a beauty pageant] intently. She is big for her age and slightly plump. She has frizzy hair and wears black-rimmed glasses. She studies the show very earnestly. Then, using a remote, she freezes the image. Absently, she holds up one hand and mimics the waving style of Miss America. She rewinds the tape and starts all over again.

Even if you haven’t seen LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (and if you haven’t, why not?! It’s a terrific movie!), I’m guessing that screenwriter Michael Arndt’s description of Olive gave you a very vivid image of the character. And notice how her black-rimmed glasses, intent expression and mimicking wave tell us volumes about her beyond just her appearance. We know what she longs for, how determined she is, and how out of reach her dream seems to be for her.

Reveal just two or three carefully chosen details when introducing a character. That character will come alive for your readers and audiences, and they’ll be emotionally hooked into your story.