Janni described a young girl skipping under the towering arch in St. Louis, savoring her ice cream cone as she dipped her feet in the cool water of the Mississippi. Then Janie moved on to a young teen, barely able to breath in her steamy city apartment, the humidity so thick she could cut it with a knife, the searing breeze blowing the stench of garbage and smelly sneakers from the alley below.
The same girl, the same town…two totally different emotions. It was thrilling to see, hear, smell and feel Janni’s emotional descriptions.
“Emotion and description are closely linked because what we feel affects what we see and because the same place holds different meanings for different people” said Janni. (Even if it is the same person, but at different times of their life.)
Janni gave us a few tips.
- Look for words and descriptive details that reflect the emotions of your characters and the tone you’re trying to set for their scenes.
- Choose words and comparisons that arise naturally out of your characters’ worlds and lives. A tenth-century kid can’t feel and electric shock; a twenty-second century kid might not know what it means to dial a phone.
- One or two carefully chosen, specifi details have more power than a dozen more generic ones. Give those specific details the space they need.
Janni also gave us some great examples to experience what she was talking about. Each of the passages talk about storms, but it is amazing how different you feel about each one.
It was a dark and story night.
In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.
The house shook.
Wrapped in her quilt, Meg shook.
- from A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
Trees are the keepers of stories. If you could understand the languages of oak and elm and tallow, they might tell you about another storm, an earlier one, twenty-five years ago to be exact, a storm that barreled across the sky, filling up the streams and bayous, how it dipped and charged, rushing through the boughs. Its black clouds were enormous, thick and heavy with water it had scooped up from the Gulf of Mexico due south of here, swirling its way north, where it sucked up more moisture from the Sabine river to the east, the river that divides Texas and Louisiana.
This tree, a thousand years old, huge and wide, straight and true, would say how it lifted its branches and welcomed the heavy rain, how it shivered as the cool water ran down its trunk and washed the dust from its long needles. How it sighed in that coolness.
- from The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt
We slept in the hay all night, waking when the wind was wild, sleeping again when it was quiet. And at dawn there was the sudden sound of hail, like stones tossed against the barn. We stared out the window, watching the ice marbles bounce on the ground. And when it was over we opened the barn door and walked out into the early-morning light. The hail crunched and melted beneath our feet. It was white and gleaming as far as we looked, like sun on glass. Like the sea.
- from Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan
A thundercloud big as a mountain swept up the river just before sunset. Lightning danced at its edges like horses at a mad gallop, then the sky turned ink black and the storm crashed over us.
- from Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson.
Now, I’m sorry, but I have to go…my fingers are dancing along with my muse and yearning to practice this piece of craft on my own writing. Happy writing to one and all. May all your descriptions create the emotions of your heart!