Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.
― Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
Words. Words create influence. Words create perceptions. Words are more than just letters strung together, they are power and to put them together in ways that excite, bore, thrill, scare, and create emotion is influence at its height.
As writers we paint pictures with bold and fine strokes using words. We can sway and alter perceptions. When we describe a character we often will use things like their home, thoughts, clothing, values, etc., as shortcuts to tell our reader something about them. Often times we focus on the top layer and don’t dig deep into giving up clues that really show who our characters are.
What we choose to focus upon and how we use our words tells the readers huge things and builds perceptions. Let me show you an example that describes the same house. Be conscious of what perceptions you have based on what I’ve focused upon.
A Description Writing Experiment
I grew up in a place where the front entry was bigger than the average person’s master bedroom. This entry was built to accommodate many, many people at a time. Sometimes, for kicks, we’d move the dining room table into the main hall amongst the sculptures and oil paintings. We’d dine there in ample room with the twenty foot ceilings, under the large sky lights, with a choice of two bathrooms off the hall. In the basement my brother and I would play basketball on a half court to our heart’s content. If it was nice out, we’d play baseball at our private ball diamond. In the summer our place would be buzzing with a staff that would top fifteen people at times.
Perception check: What are impression have I left about my family? Our monetary value? My upbringing? Our habits? My parents’ employment? Our education? Our values? How we act, talk and behave? How do you feel about me?
Now read this example which describes the same place…
I grew up in a place where the large front entry had chipped paint over the industrial cement floors and the stair’s tiles that led up to the main hall peeled up in places and every so often we’d go by with a hammer and some finishing nails to knock the asbestos tiles back in place. When my hippy parents tired of us eating off the kitchen table they’d made, we’d move a table into the hall where we’d eat among Mom’s paintings and sculptures made by her friends. Off the hall we had a choice of two bathrooms–girls or boys. Neither of them were completely finished in their renovations and had plywood flooring exposed in places since the rooms had been gutted after the schoolhouse closed in the 50s. The basketball court in the basement was great for us kids even though it was a tiled floored, barely a half court and with a terribly low ceiling. The ball diamond out back was grown over and the backstop was half-falling down but we used it anyway–if we could find enough kids for a team. Because my parents were beekeepers and ran the business out of the ‘house,’ there were often staff working in one half of the school, taking up two of the four classrooms. In the summer it wasn’t uncommon to find half-spent honeybees spinning on their backs on our kitchen floor. Watch where you step!
Perception check: What are impression have I left about my family? Our monetary value? My upbringing? Our habits? My parents’ employment? Our education? Our values? How we act, talk and behave? How do you feel about me now?
Chances are you imagined something completely different based on the details I shared about the exact same house.
That is the power we have with our words. What we choose to expose, what we choose to focus upon, and even the words we choose to describe influence our readers. Be careful. Be bold. Have fun! (And keep in mind that depending where your characters are coming from, they might see things as differently as in the two examples above.)
Have you thought about your description lately? Is there a way to up your game and use less to describe more with your words? Heck, is there a place in your current project where you can turn things on their tail and give your readers a ride? Tell me about it in the comment section.
Tweet it out: Writers wield power with their words. We choose what to focus upon & expose for maximum influence.