On Writing Descriptive, a Painter’s View.


Dianne Gardner


When an artist paints en plein air (which means painting from life) we have some basic ground rules.

  • Pace: Depending on how high the sun is in the sky, timing is important. The sun moves, the shadows change, and if we don’t ‘seize the moment’ we lose what it was that inspired us. Afternoon is slower paced painting than sunset, or early morning for example because the shadows change drastically as the sun draws near the horizon.
  • Form: We paint shapes and shadows. (An object’s shape is revealed by how light hits it). The more detail we want, the more refined those shapes and shadows become.
  • Application: We have a motto “less is more”.

A writer is a painter of words. Why should the rules be any different?

Suppose the writer wants to paint a scene of his main female character walking down an alley at night. He wants the reader to know there’s a threat, but he’d rather build up suspense instead of bringing the stalker into view right away.

How can we apply these painting rules to this manuscript?

Pace. The pace of how fast the character moves isn’t the only pacing we’re talking about in story writing. We’re talking about mood. Just as we attempt to match the atmospheric nuances in a plein air painting, so too we need to create a mood to tell our story. If our MC is afraid, she’s going to want to get to safety quickly. That’s a given. But if we want to build up suspense and in so doing build up her fear, we need to describe more than her running through the alley. What does she see on her way home? She’s walking too fast to notice the polka dot curtains in the apartment above her, the potted hollyhocks on a porch at the corner, or the cobbler’s sign across the street. If this were a quiet Sunday afternoon, the pacing would be different and your sentences could stand to be longer and contain more detail. She’d walk slower, and many more sights sounds and smells would be available for her to enjoy.

What she will see if she’s in a hurry though would be a sudden flash from a car headlight as it hits a window and burns the shape of her own shadow in front of her. Then it’s gone and you hear her heels on the pavement.  She’s not sticking around to notice anything else. She is totally engrossed in her own heartbeat and how it matches the rhythm of her footsteps as she runs. She might smell her pursuers, and her lungs might be hot from hyperventilating.

Form. This is the equivalent of show don’t tell. Shapes and shadows show you where the eye is. Line drawing an eye defines where it is. Shapes and shadows leave room for expression, for exploration of form and depth. Line drawing tells your viewer what to see. So in the example we’re using, the form is that of a body moving through the shadows in panic. Thoughts and emotions are going to make a strong impact in this scene. Describe those.

Application:  This comes with editing. It’s OK to write good and bad in a first draft so long as you plan to do major edits.  Just remember, when you do sit down to rewrite that  “Less is more.” Say only what you need to say in as few words as possible. Choose your verbs carefully because they move your story. Do a find/replace for words such as “it, and that”. Make certain if you were talking to someone from a different country you would be making your thoughts simple and clear. In your edits, take away excess, and add clarification, which can often be done in the form of dialogue. This is my favorite part of story writing because it’s when the story really takes shape.

Your readers will appreciate the hard work to make your novel clean and colorful!


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