I love word painting. It’s the last element of texture I add into a piece before I move into polishing. It’s adding those eloquent, specific words and cadences to a sentence or paragraph that not only makes it come alive … but adds in the right emotion. A book is all about connecting to the reader’s emotions, and word painting is the finite art of wooing your words into your reader’s heart. It’s going beyond naming and telling emotions to using the painting of words to evoke the correct feeling.
Let’s take a look. Here’s a piece of word painting from my current novel, Sons of Thunder:
Markos speared the water. The cool lick of it scooped his breath, slicked from his body the heat of the day.
He surfaced fast, gulped air, and dove back to the ocean floor, kicking toward the cave. A deep thrumming rumbled his bones even as he scrabbled over the slippery rock outside the entrance. The jaws raked his skin as he levered himself through a crevice just big enough for a boy of seventeen.
Although it’s an active description, it is meant to create a sense of tension as he pushes himself into the cave. I could have written it more simply: Fear coiled inside him as he pushed himself into the cave. But I wanted the description to convey the emotion, and not name it directly.
How do you word paint for emotional effect? Here are three easy ideas:
- Create a Metaphorical Word Pool. As you write, your words will tend toward specific verbs and nouns. Taking a step away from these, you’ll find that they might fall in categories of description. For example, describing the sky, you might say that the clouds swirled against a canvas of blue. Okay, “swirled” and “canvas” both evoke a sense of “painting.” You now have your metaphorical category. Look for other “painting words” as you continue the description — brush, paint, mix, blend, stir. You can also go further, and take from the mind of the painter, or even use well-known painters to bring in emotional metaphor, e.g., lavender splotched the canvas of blue, as if the painter, frustrated, took his brush and swept across with angry, thick strokes.
What metaphorical word pool did I pull from in the above scene?
- Pick Verbs that convey the feeling of what you are describing. For example, if I were describing a giant crater in the earth, one made by a meteor, I might use words like jagged, and ripped, and bruised. But if I were describing a hole that would become my long desired swimming pool, I’d go with, scooped, or even carved from the earth. By the way, sometimes, if I’m having trouble finding my metaphorical pool, I just write the description, and see what verbs I naturally use. From there, I can find the metaphorical pool, i.e., in this one, I think of ice cream with the verbs I used for the pool description.
Markos feels like he’s being gulped, or eaten, going into the jaws of the cave, and I wanted to convey a sense of panic as he goes inside. So I used words of violence: Speared, rumbled, scrabbled, raked.
- Give your POV character a physical response to the description. Markos is hot, so the water is cool, yet dangerous. He has mixed emotions about being there — so I show that in the verbs I use. Note the subtle tension in these sentences:
The cool lick (a positive feeling) of it scooped his breath (negative), slicked from his body the heat of the day. (positive) He surfaced fast, gulped air, and dove back to the ocean floor … (negative).
You could also use a metaphor that captures the physical response, something that would give a similar physical response. For example, in my pool example, I could say: Staring at the dark expanse, edged with rich, chocolate curls of earth, I tasted the cool water on my lips, sweet and sloppy, drenching me. A shiver of delight shimmed right down to my belly and I could hardly wait to dive in.
Obviously, I’m using the feeling of eating ice cream, and equating it with my dreams of diving into my pool.
Don’t use too many metaphors — one strong one will do. But find the right one, and use it well. Word painting is more than just description. It’s using the correct hues and brush strokes to create a landscape of emotion for your reader.
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The follow-up worktext to From the Inside-Out:
The follow-up worktext to From the Inside …Out: discover, create and publish the novel in you, Deep and Wide utilizes Susan May Warren’s easy to apply explanations, exercises and intuitive methods to teach you advanced fiction writing techniques that will turn any novel from boring to breathtaking.
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