Building Definition - Bring Your Story to Life: Wording

J.R. Pittman

The very first time I put a story up for review, I received feedback like, "Your story line is wonderful, but your writing lacks color and definition." Have you ever heard something along those lines? Or, perhaps something like, "I can't picture your characters". I had to find out what "color and definition" meant.

"My character has green eyes and black hair. Doesn't that give color?" I asked.

"There is no detail. You are an artist, painting a moving picture with words." What an enlightening answer!

Since that time - over six years ago - I've set out to make my characters, settings and actions as defined and colorful as possible. I became a people-watcher, intent on picking up mannerisms and facial expressions. I listened in at restaurants, writing brief descriptions of "voices in motion", and paid attention to what made an author's character stand out so clearly in books that I've read.

I've learned something that I would like to pass along:

It is not the details alone that make the difference - it is how you write them.

So - you know what you're going to write about. You know how the story goes and you may even have a rough draft or an outline. It's time to build that oh-so-important definition.

There are four major elements of building definition: wording, characters, setting, and action. First, let's focus on wording.

People - yes, even writers! - have a tendency to use words and definitions that they are most comfortable with. Sometimes this works, especially in children's or young adults' fiction. However, the more mature your audience, the stronger your writing needs to become. For instance, "see Dick run" and "Jane runs fast" is well and good for a child's story, but an adult would need more.

Dick charged toward the line with Jane fast behind him.

It may look different, but you're still saying "see Dick run" and "Jane runs fast". Think of it this way: a child has an infinite amount of imagination. One child can defeat an army, make a pact with Indians and build a castle - all in one day. They need very little to inflame the imagination.

An adult however, has a stronger imagination and needs more than a stick to become a knight. Now, give them a sword, armor, a shield and a horse and they might think about it. Your job as an author is to give them that sword, armor, shield and horse in such a way that they want to become a knight. They want to read on and become absorbed in the story.

How do you accomplish this? How do you build definition and bring your story to life?

Rule # 1. - The number one rule in building definition - the thesaurus

It's an author's best friend, companion and inspirational tome. There may be only so many words to describe "tall", but they're all in the handy, dandy thesaurus. Most, if not all, word-processors have a built in thesaurus.

Rule #2. When writing descriptions, keep an eye out for "short-cut" words.

"Short-cut" words give an immediate meaning to the sentence, like "impatient" or "sad". For example:

Jason is sad.

Unless you have a specific reason to be abrupt and exact - a prologue opening, for instance - you can give the reader a much clearer picture than this.

Shoulders slumping, Jason sighed and wiped away a tear.

Another example:

Jason was impatient.

This does it all, right? Everyone knows what being impatient is like, don't they? We can go on to the rest of the story, where impatient Jason meets the love of his life, kills the bad guy and lives happily ever after. But wait - is he a little impatient, somewhat impatient, or really impatient? For that matter, what does "impatient" look like?

Rule #3. Show, don't tell. - I know we've all heard it. It's been ingrained into the writer's mind from a young age. Isn't it amazing, then, that we still manage to write, "Jason was impatient"?

Jason looked down at his watch, sighed, and leaned against the post.

Notice that I didn't use the actual word "impatient". Now you're seeing that Jason is a little impatient. You're showing the reader with descriptive words.

Also, if you must use emotive, or "short-cut" words, try to frame the sentence so that you don't have to add that ever prevalent "ly": impatiently, sadly, carefully. Sometimes it may not be possible:

Sadly, Jason had no recourse but to leave.

In this case, there isn't much that you can do to rearrange the sentence. Adverbs can be useful and appropriate. In numbers, however, they can overwhelm your writing, making it weak.

Jason impatiently tapped his fingers on the table

. "What's the matter with that?" you ask. Technically, there's nothing wrong with it. It's fine, but how much better would it be if it were worded without the "ly"?

Impatient, Jason tapped his fingers on the table.

Rearrange those descriptions to be as strong as they can be.

Rule #4. Don't tease the reader! - We've all done it. We've all written something like: "The light seemed to flinch from his features." When it's finished, we pat ourselves on the back with a proud “good job" and then go on with the story.

We think it's neat. We think it's an interesting way of wording things. The reader, however, is confused, bewildered - uncertain as to what is actually happening.

"Um - did the light seem to flinch back or did it actually flinch back? If it seemed to, then what made it appear that way?"

Several of groups of reviewers have asked me questions like this. So don't tease, don't leave them guessing when it comes to descriptions. Instead of "it seemed to", try using a descriptive.

He moved forward, the light touching on his features then pulling back as if afraid of what it might reveal.

Don't be afraid to anthropomorphize. Let the light fear! Let the leaves dance and the breeze whisper through the trees!

Rule #5. Make sure your metaphors and similes are appropriate and understandable.

Jason ran around like a chicken with its head cut off.

Who hasn't heard that simile? Pretty much everyone, probably. How good is it, though? How many have actually seen a chicken with its head cut off? Is that really the image you want to give?

Jason was a caged animal.

Nice metaphor, but don't leave it at that. You allow your reader's imagination too much leeway with "animal". If you let them decide what kind of animal to picture, you may not get the appropriate feeling across.

Jason was a caged tiger, pacing back and forth, his anger building.

By adding a few more words and deciding what type of animal Jason is, you can bring that picture much better clarity. Choose for them; let them see what kind of animal your character is.

Rule #6. Try not to repeat yourself. - This is more easily said than done. By using words and phrases such as "all of a sudden" or "suddenly", you have broken the rule.

Jason stood there. Suddenly, he was spun around.

If Jason is standing and then spins around with no warning, we already know that it is sudden. By adding "suddenly", you have repeated yourself. If you don't feel that "he was spun around" is enough information, feel free to add how he is spun around.

Jason stood there, staring at the wall, oblivious to his surroundings. A hand clasped his shoulder and he was spun around.

Have faith that your reader can recognize the suddenness of the movement.

"I don't understand," Jason said, confused.

I've seen this version of repetition many times. When Jason says, "I don't understand", it already implies confusion.

Dialog is a bad place for repetition. When writing dialog, keep an eye out for "he said". I have read many stories where dialog-intensive areas are peppered with "Carol said," or "Jason said". There's nothing wrong with it, but "said" begins to stick out in the mind's eye:

"I don't understand," Jason said.

"Of course you don't understand," said Carol. "Just do what you're told."

"But-" Jason said.

"No buts," said Carol.

"Okay," said Jason.

Instead, let the character's words and actions show how something is being said:

Jason sank down onto the chair, his feelings numb. "I don't understand."

"Of course you don't understand," muttered Carol. "Just do what you're told."


Carol's eyes flashed with anger. "No buts."

"Okay." Jason let out a defeated sigh.

This gives a better idea of the characters' voices without the continual use of "said". It allows the reader to "hear" Carol's irritation, as well as the resignation in Jason's voice at the end.

Although there are many ways to increase the strength of your descriptions, these six rules are a good base to start with. Once you know what to look for, you'll find that writing strong descriptions will become second nature.

An exercise in writing good, strong descriptions:

Find a busy place where you can sit out of the way and watch people. Choose one person and write a description of their mannerisms. It doesn't matter how long the description is, but make sure it is as detailed as possible.

Afterwards, read over the description, keeping the six rules in mind. Starting with a clean sheet of paper - or a fresh document, if you prefer typing as I do - rewrite your description using the six rules. Compare your original description with the edited one. You may be pleasantly surprised by the difference.

Remember - you are an artist, painting a picture with words. May you always paint a masterpiece!