As a Licensed English Teacher for children grades 5-12 and experienced reading/writing tutor, I’ve taught descriptive literary techniques to middle and high schoolers alike. But in my humble opinion, we should never outgrow the desire to add vivid descriptive details to our stories. Which elements you add to YOUR personal toolbox (grammar and/or figurative language) depends on your unique writing style. No matter which collection of descriptive writing tools you choose, all will help you SHOW instead of TELL!
THE STRONG VERB: All action verbs make sentences active, but why run when you can gallop, dash, scurry, scamper, or bolt instead? From picture books to young adult novels, the strong verb is always a winning choice, especially when word count is a concern.
ADJECTIVES: What if hat doesn’t do a towering, multicolored, be-fruited masterpiece justice? How would YOU describe this concoction worn by eye-catching Brazilian Carmen Miranda? Less common in picture books, adjectives have the power to perk up common nouns like hat, dog, and car.
ADVERBS: For variation, consider using an adverb to describe a plain verb like walk. Instead of galloping, dashing, or scurrying, your character can walk deliberately, carefully, or gracefully. While the majority of adverbs end in LY, some (well and better are two examples) do not. If you desire a refresher on grammar terms, I recommend you check out fun books like this series by Brian P. Cleary and Brian Gable.
REPETITION: Sometimes a word, phrase, sentence, or sound bears repeating and repeating and repeating …! This technique is used to great effect in picture books, or any time you wish to make an emphatic point, create structure, echo the main theme, or love the way repetition sounds. Ever wonder why the Gettysburg Address remains one of the most admired and recited speeches of all time? Lincoln was a master of the persuasive power of repetition (mixed with parallelism): “… a government for the people, by the people, and of the people …”
FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE TOOLS:
SIMILES: This figurative tool uses LIKE or AS to compare one person, place, or thing to something completely different. Similes especially sparkle when original and tied to a specific character’s interests and passions. Is your character fond of astronomy? Perhaps Meredith’s smile is bright as the northern star or Annika’s love is fleeting as a meteor. Often, you’ll see another “as” inserted before the first word of the simile like this: Annika’s love is as fleeting as a meteor. To my ear, that extra “as” isn’t necessary, but it’s entirely up to you and your writing style.
MAGIC METAPHORS: Metaphors are magic because they possess the power to turn one thing into another. These work best when equating an emotion, sensation, or body part to something concrete. Are your eyebrows wiggling caterpillars? Is your frustration a dog without a bone or a squirrel that can’t reach the bird feeder? As you see, my metaphors turn into animals, but yours can turn into anything from our world or beyond.
IDIOMS: Much like metaphors, idioms call call one thing something else. But in this case, the “something else” is one of those odd expressions that we can recite by memory but wonder how it came about. Unless you want to create a character who regularly spouts idioms like “it’s raining cats and dogs,” and “it’s a piece of cake,” you may think twice about letting these take up space in your toolbox.
PERSONIFICATION: Notice the person inside personification? This figurative tool means to imbue an inanimate object with human-like attributes. For a great example of this, look to Charles Dickens’ classic, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, in which fog extends its grasping fingers in a truly menacing scene. Since reading that passage years ago, I’ve never been able to view fog without shivering.
ONOMATOPOEIA: This device deserves props for containing every vowel except U. In plain language, it means to describe an object by the sounds it makes. For example, a race car roared down the track; the siren wailed; a bird chirped; and the campfire cracked and hissed. Do you notice that these sounds are strong, descriptive verbs?!? Go ahead and toss a few of these in your toolbox – I guarantee you won’t regret it. And join me in checking out this song!
ALLITERATION: This refers to a series of words that begin with the same consonant sound. It’s popularly placed in picture books as well as in MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS, a particularly P – populated book and movie. Whether you write with these or not, they’re great fun to banter about.
SENSORY EXPLORATION: Let your fingers do the walking, your lips do the talking, your ears do the hearing, and your nose do the smelling. Authors commonly write about what their characters see, but shouldn’t forget to consider what they touch, taste, sound, and smell. Personally, I could breathe in the scent of rich, dark chocolate all day long. And have you ever rubbed your fingers over the velvety soft leaves of lamb’s ear?
HYPERBOLE: Hyperbole means using excessive exaggeration to describe a character’s actions or feelings. Look no further than Paul Bunyan, the man, the myth, the legend (or more appropriately, the Tall Tale), to see how this technique can be used to tickle your readers’ funny bones. On the flip side, this technique can also be used to reflect a damaged or overblown psyche. I just finished (and loved) all the books in the SHATTER ME series by Tahereh Mafi, in which hyperbole reveals the inner workings of a mind dangling on the precipice of insanity.
ALLUSIONS: Not to be confused with illusions (now you see it, now you don’t), this descriptive technique means referring to a well known literary character or person in your writing. What images come to mind when you think of Don Quixote? Did you know this classic character inspired the word quixotic, which means “exceedingly unrealistic, romantic, and idealistic”? The Greek Gods and other mythological characters also make excellent references, as do any of the delightful characters from Aesop’s fables.
OXYMORONS: In literary terms, this means placing contrasting words together to create new, thought-provoking meaning. Deafening silence, an open secret, and being alone together are three oxymorons that suggest a world of plot possibilities.
Go forth and experiment with these different descriptive tools as you create your stories. It’s my hope that one or more of these grammar and/or figurative elements will inspire YOU to write something fresh, descriptive, and outside the box!
Show and Tell for Writers by Laura Cooper