“The artist, having chosen his theme, picks out only those details that are characteristic and of value for his subject…and he rejects all the remainder…”
Guy de Maupassant
“Reaching readers, drawing them into a world you create on a page and making them experience it with both head and heart, requires that you show them exactly what you’re talking about. Before they can get to the same place you are, they need to see what you saw, hear what you heard, and smell what you smelled. You must share your experience, not the conclusions you draw from it.”
Jack Hart, a Writer’s Coach
Color, those vivid, nimble word descriptions that paint a scene or flesh out a character, add brightness and depth to our stories. Telling details both spark our readers’ emotions and breathe life into abstract ideas and broader themes. Metaphor, similes, and wordplay are just a few of the tools we can use to brighten our palette on the page.
In A Writer’s Coach, a great handbook, Jack Hart devotes a chapter to color. I’ve captured a few pointers from it for us all to ponder and play with:
Feel, then describe: Pay close attention to how you feel when describing a scene, whether you’re writing nonfiction or fiction. Then, as Jack puts it, “…work back to the specific details — sights, sounds, smells, tastes — that produced your emotional response” (or that will evoke that response in your readers) and infuse your story with them.
Make details deliver: When you’re describing your characters, make every detail count. For starters, come up with three details that capture their main physical characteristics or their personality, or better still, both — and then enrich them.
Work Backward: Identify the central point you want to make in a story or scene. Then ask yourself what details you can build in to provide the “evidence” your readers will need to arrive where you want them to.
Play with simile: As Jack suggests, “Train your figurative ear by playing the game that Hemingway and Fitzgerald invented while driving through the Spanish countryside. Point to a random object and create a comparison.” The more inventive your similes, the more surprised and delighted your readers will be.
Less is More: “Metaphors, similes, and other figurative devices work best when you measure them out carefully.” If you cram too many into a paragraph, they’ll overwhelm the reader. If you’re too stingy, your writing may seem flat and lackluster. When reviewing a rough draft, check it for color. According to Jack, “a figure of speech about every third or fourth paragraph,” is a helpful touchstone.