Every once in a while, I drown in a book. The words form into currents that surge up and over me before I can hold my breath. I not only visualize the character’s situation, I feel every sensation.
Prose is the undertow that immerses readers, and the deeper they sink, the more truth and beauty they can explore. The transformative power of storytelling resides in the author’s ability to pull readers into an unfamiliar sea and convince them they can taste the salt. Until they believe the waves lapping at their imaginations are real, they won’t set sail—or ever reach the shore of a new perspective.
Maggie Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races and Leigh Bardugo’s King of Scars overflow with examples of evocative imagery. Both books swept me along because of the characterization leaking through each paragraph, and I’m going to dive into a couple excerpts to teach you how to give readers an equally visceral experience.
The Secret to Immersive Prose
When you dissect a favorite author’s style, you probably focus on word choices, analogies, sentence construction, and pacing to figure out how to imitate the strategies. But those details float on the surface while the hypnotic energy lies beneath. Before you can engulf readers with your prose, you need to swim into your POV character’s soul, like the first page of the prologue for The Scorpio Races does:
It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.
Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever-changing patterns in the sand as it’s pummeled by countless hooves.
They run the horses on the beach, a pale road between the black water and the chalk cliffs. It is never safe, but it’s never so dangerous as today, race day.
This time of year, I live and breathe the beach. My cheeks feel raw with the wind throwing sand against them. My thighs sting from the friction of the saddle. My arms ache from holding up two thousand pounds of horse. I have forgotten what it is like to be warm and what a full night’s sleep feels like and what my name sounds like spoken instead of shouted across yards of sand.
I am so, so alive.
As I head down to the cliffs with my father, one of the race officials stops me. He says, “Sean Kendrick, you are ten years old. You haven’t discovered it yet, but there are more interesting ways to die than on this beach.”
Can you sense Sean’s longing? His thoughts, and even the dialogue at the end, hint at his dream to someday participate in the dangerous competition he’s watching. Capturing your character’s goals through the setting reveals God’s reality: He made each of us unique, and thus our impulses taint our perceptions.
Stiefvater needs only half a page to convey Sean’s fascination with the carnivorous beasts and their intrepid riders. She doesn’t prioritize description over character development, nor does she state Sean’s ambitions directly. Instead, she takes her time without losing direction—or readers’ attention. Your prose can have the same effect if you copy her tactics.
Before I address the technical side of the process, pick a scene from your work-in-progress and pinpoint what your character is after. Is he trying to escape from prison? Study for an exam in peace? Gather the courage to ask his best friend out on a date? Jot down the answer and prepare to never mention it again, because you’re going to sneak it into his observations like a submarine slipping past an enemy fleet.
Apply the Lens of Your Character’s Desire
Now you have permission to fuss over mechanics. If you’re planning to show your character’s goal through the setting, you’ll need to establish the scene’s mood, which involves all of the stylistic and structural devices I urged you to ignore earlier. Examine the first three paragraphs of King of Scars to understand how Leigh Bardugo relays her POV character’s emotions:
Dima heard the barn doors slam before anyone else did. Inside the little farmhouse, the kitchen bubbled like a pot on the stove, its windows shut tight against the storm, the air in the room warm and moist. The walls rattled with the rowdy din of Dima’s brothers talking over one another as his mother hummed and thumped her foot to a song Dima didn’t know. She held the torn sleeve of one of his father’s shirts taut in her lap, her needle pecking at the fabric in the uneven rhythm of an eager sparrow, a skein of wool thread trailing between her fingers like a choice worm.
Dima was the youngest of six boys, the baby who had arrived late to his mother, long after the doctor who came through their village every summer had told her there would be no more children. “An unexpected blessing,” Mama liked to say, holding Dima close and fussing over him when the others had gone off to their chores. “An unwanted mouth to feed,” his older brother Pyotr would sneer.
Because Dima was so small, he was often left out of his brothers’ jokes, forgotten in the noisy arguments of the household, and that was why, on that autumn night, standing by the basin, soaping the last of the pots that his brothers had made sure to leave for him, only he heard the damning thunk of the barn doors. Dima set to scrubbing harder, determined to finish his work and get to bed before anyone could think to send him out into the dark. He could hear their dog, Molniya, whining on the kitchen stoop, begging for scraps and a warm place to sleep as the wind rose on an angry howl.
From this section, you can deduce two facts: the home is cozy and the weather is stormy. Dima is the runt of the family, and though his brothers tend to exclude him from their escapades, he still worries that someone might ask him to run out and latch the flapping doors. Adjectival phrases like “warm and moist” and “windows tight against the storm” emphasize the appeal of staying inside while Dima’s dog demonstrates the discomfort of venturing outside. Stiefvater uses a similar contrast in her opening: though she defines the beach as torturous, it’s also wild and majestic, and immediately readers are as intrigued as Sean is.
A character’s frame of mind can entirely change the connotations of his surroundings. For instance, if he’s late for a flight, he’ll treat the crowds between him and the gate as obstacles, the personnel at the security checkpoint will seem hypervigilant, and the fluorescent lights will glare at him. But if he’s disembarking an airplane to meet a relative he hasn’t talked to in years, he’ll let the hundreds of other passengers and protocols delay the reunion until the intrusive fluorescent lights betray the corner he’s standing in. Without the anxious overtone, neither version of the scene would carry as much meaning.
Being fully attuned to your characters helps you add more layers to your prose, but the task is also difficult and time consuming. Identifying individual (and perhaps hidden) goals and emotions requires keen discernment, and then finding the ideal words to communicate both is like swishing sand around in the shallows to search for seashells. Rest assured, though, your effort won’t go unnoticed.
Don’t Be Afraid to Slow Down
Many authors hesitate to leverage their settings as a conduit for character development because they’re concerned that they’ll go overboard. After all, no matter how much fans love and respect Tolkien, they still complain about his long-windedness when he dwells on the scenery of Middle-Earth. What if readers criticize your books too—or worse, hate you because you’re not Tolkien?
Decorative descriptions and purposeful descriptions are not equivalent in value, however. If you’re inserting information that your character won’t care about, readers won’t care either. Whereas the reverse will reflect your real-life interactions with God’s creation: your emotions and goals tinge everything you see, touch, taste, hear, and smell. The next time you’re tempted to opt for brevity, remember that descriptions offer readers the chance to connect with your characters and plunge into fathoms of pain and wonder and discovery alongside them.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.
I always enjoy your articles, Ms. Pollack– they are full of vivid inspiration! Lots of useful reminders here, helping me to define what it is that draws me to the descriptive prose of writers more skilled than I.
One thing that always hangs me up, though, that I wonder if others have insight on: when writing drafts, how do you draw the line between focusing on description vs. letting the plot move forward? Whenever I try to draw out my characters through descriptive language, I get wrapped up in the moment and end up with something really artistic but not intrinsic to the plot. So I write, slash, and backtrack again to re-outlining. Is this something that you have to accept as part of the learning curve/drafting process, or are there any tricks out there for limiting those tangents that distract from the plot? I love crafting descriptions, but I am so often discouraged by once again losing focus on the big picture I have at the start.
This is a very timely and insightful article, Gabby. Thank you!
I am notorious for erring on the side of brevity. This article was just what I needed in my drafting right now!
Really love this advice! The real tricks of the trade right here.
Also, side note: It’s fascinating to hear this from someone who experiences stories so viscerally. My imagination is not very vivid, oddly enough. I tend to identify with the emotional states of characters much more strongly than I have ever experienced/identified with their visual/sensory experiences.
The neat thing is that even though that’s the case for me, I can still glean the emotional state of the character from well-crafted descriptions, so this stuff *still* works great for me. Really neat how good artistry is powerful from a variety of perspectives!