Hi, Dave Fessenden here, to tell you what I’ve learned about writing from Detective Joe Friday, on the old TV show Dragnet.
Sergeant Friday was a no-nonsense kind of guy. He didn’t let crime victims go on and on about their feelings; his motto was “Just the facts, Ma’am.” And that’s the attitude you need to take when you want to put more description in your writing.
Don’t get me wrong—you can’t ignore emotion, and emotional response is a key to your writing. Dwight V. Swain, author of the book Techniques of the Selling Writer, says it this way: “The application of language to the manipulation of reader feelings . . . is the foundation stone on which you as a writer stand or fall.” It’s a question of empathy. You want the reader to feel the emotions and sensations along with you — or along with your characters, if it’s fiction.
But exactly how do you bring empathy into your writing? You do it by description. You’ve probably heard this referred to as the “show, don’t tell” concept. You don’t tell the reader what they should be feeling, you show them the emotion, and let them feel it themselves.
Ironically, however, you can’t do it directly, by simply expressing feelings or emotions, because then you become like Joe Friday’s crime victim, blubbering all over his or her shoes. And the reader feels like Friday—a detached observer. But it’s you, the writer, who needs to be the detached observer, describing passion dispassionately, building on the details to the point that you spark the reader’s natural ability to empathize, to experience the emotion vicariously.
What I’m saying is, if I try to “describe” emotions, I find that I’m “telling” them; but if I describe physical reactions, body language, etc., then I’m “showing.” It’s similar to the irony that if you hyper-focus on trying to be “healthy” you can end up a hypochondriac. But if you focus on getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising, etc., you’ll find you end up being healthy without even trying.
One thing I have learned that helped me improve my descriptions is to concentrate on verbs in the sentence, rather than adjectives (as most English teachers would suggest ). Not that I ignore adjectives — or nouns, or adverbs — but simply that the descriptive power often seems to be centered in verbs. If you notice, your strongest verbs really make descriptions sing! But when most of your sentences have weak verbs like “has” or “is,” the power is lost. If you say, for example, that the bird’s feathers exploded with color, or that the constant chatter in the room engulfed the normally dead quiet, it is more effective.
Learning to be more observant of the world around you is good training for developing descriptions that are fresh and vivid. I don’t think very many of us really observe life that carefully, and as a result, our descriptions become trite—such as “fingers dancing across the keyboard.” It’s impossible for anyone to be completely original, but when you use an image, a simile, a metaphor, try something that is NOT the first thing the reader will expect. For example, if I said, “I’m as hungry as a . . .” you are probably thinking “horse,” right? But if I said, “I’m as hungry as a supermodel on a diet,” I’d probably surprise you, wouldn’t I?
John Grisham is great at this. Take this excerpt from Bleachers: “He looked twice as big now, his neck as thick as an oak stump, his shoulders as wide as a door. His biceps and triceps were many times the normal size. His stomach looked like a cobblestone street.” Grisham’s similes are great, aren’t they? If someone’s going to be trite, it’s probably going to show up in a simile, for some reason. But Grisham knows how to use similes the right way, making every sentence bright and fresh.
David E. Fessenden is a literary agent with WordWise Media Services and an independent publishing consultant with degrees in journalism and theology, and two decades of editorial management with Christian publishers. He has written six books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. His first novel, The Case of the Exploding Speakeasy, was published in the fall of 2013. His blog on writing is www.fromconcepttocontract.com.