The title of the definitive craft book on word painting, Rebecca McClanahan’s Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, hints that there is more to the skill than simply remembering to include narrative description in writing.
Writing consists of both narrative and dialogue, and both contain description. Word painting is about providing the reader with a vivid picture of what is transpiring in a story. In a simple example, it’s the difference between the box, the recycling bin, and the blue plastic, white-lettered container filled with used newspapers overflowing onto the sidewalk.
According to author and My Book Therapy (MBT) founder, Susan May Warren, word painting is about “crafting the storyworld”. In a 2008 post on the MBT blog, she talked about the elements of storyworld: dress, environment, time period, attitudes, inferences or expectations, language and the five senses. She sums these up in a single word: details.
As Ms. McClanahan informs us, “Like painters, writers are the receptors of sensations from the real world and the world of imagination, and effective description demands that we sharpen our instruments of perception.” Thus, word painting involves all of a writer’s faculties—the eye, ear, mouth, nose, hand, and of course, the mind. It’s about describing images “clearly, accurately, imaginatively … and in a fresh way.”
Ms. McClanahan doesn’t stop there. For her, word painting goes beyond simple description and becomes a storytelling tool. Words are used to develop believable characters, evoke mood, establish point of view, build tension and move the plot forward.
Have you ever read a book and felt your heart race, your temperature rise or your mood drop because of the words on the page? Livia Blackburne, a neuroscience graduate student at MIT conducting research on the neural correlates of reading, discovered that readers display specific brain activity depending on the meaning and content of words.
Words have power.
Perhaps this is why “the pen is mightier than the sword” and why writers are urged to incorporate the five senses in their writing. Words are so powerful they have the ability to stimulate the brain in ways we may never fully understand. The five senses —smell, touch, taste, sound, and sight — when carefully brought into a story will transport the reader into the story’s setting and action square amongst the story’s characters. The reader becomes immersed in the story.
Sight and hearing are known to be the most commonly used senses in writing. Writers must work to remember the other three. But even when a writer skillfully includes all five, she is not done. Ms. Blackburne also reminds us to remember to convey movement with our words. Doing so gives the reader a spatial context that helps make the story believable.
Five senses and movement? This may seem like a lot, but it’s important for writers to strike a balance. We don’t want to simply throw description at the reader but to use it in strategic and meaningful ways.
Is it possible to capture everything in a single sentence? Maybe — but doing so in every sentence would likely overwhelm the reader. Rather, it’s possible to paint a full and complete picture within a scene or, at minimum, a chapter.
In a particular passage set in a bakery, for example, a writer may automatically describe the smells and tastes of the food. But think how enriched the reading experience might be for a reader who also gets a sense of the size of the kitchen, the look of the fixtures, the texture of the ingredients being cooked, the temperature in the room, the noises associated with the baking process and the activity of the bakers. Writers can convey all this via a combination of narrative and dialogue.
Ms. McClanahan would tell us that the choices we make should depend on what’s most important at that point in the story for developing the characters, establishing the setting, ramping up the conflict and advancing the plot.
That’s word painting.
Some of My Favorite References On Word Painting and Writing with the Five Senses:
McClanahan, Rebecca. Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, Writers Digest Books ,1999.
“What’s In Your World?” by Susan May Warren
“A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing” by Dr. Livia Blackburne
“Before Writing Your Scene, Strap on a Tutu” by Jack Cavanaugh
“Using Sensory/Emotional Triggers to Write” by Tina Russo
“Make POV Work for You: Show Don’t Tell (Part 2)” by Kaye Dacus
“If it hurts, write about it” by Chris Hamilton
“Make Your Settings Count” by Edie Melson
“New York Times Writing and the EDITS System” by Margie Lawson
An avid reader from childhood, Patricia Woodside has turned her attention toward telling gripping stories of her own. She dipped her feet into the publishing waters with several sweet romantic confessions, a Kwanzaa short story, and an anthology piece about meeting her sweetheart, her husband of nearly 20 years. Patricia does business and financial analysis by day; she reads and writes by night. She is the mother of three sons and is a transplanted New Yorker living in Florida. She is working on her first inspirational romance.