On my first read of The Book Thief, the peerless prose stunned me. I wanted to achieve Zusak’s skill, but I didn’t know how. So I began a nightly experiment to see if any techniques would emerge.
I’d take out my pencil, notebook, and angled writing board (to encourage good posture) and copy the text for half an hour. Partway in, I made an astounding discovery. Most of the lines I loved gained their brilliance from one fundamental principle: concreteness.
The more specific a term is, the more solidly it appears in a reader’s imagination. The verb “place,” for instance, is indistinct. But “scatter” illustrates how the character is doing the action, and “sow” fills in even more detail, because it hints at a future harvest. In the case of nouns, “terrain” is difficult to visualize, “valley” is better but still too broad, and “dell” plops us into a treed sanctuary. Since our culture is addicted to abstractions, concrete descriptions stand out.
In a novel, abstract descriptions should be used sparingly while concrete descriptions should be in profusion—with one caveat. “Giant of a man” or “lanky man” might be more precise than “tall man,” but sometimes the latter is all you need to communicate. You must pay careful attention to the impression you hope to leave and relax your writing muscles when a moment is less significant.
However, the power in Zusak’s prose is derived from more than intentional noun and verb usage. He relies on metaphors to further enrich his descriptions, and I’m going to show you how to imitate the effect.
Uniting Figurative and Vivid Language
“Sow kindness throughout your life” and “he trekked into the dell” is respectable prose, but it will never earn wows. Where The Book Thief excels (and you can too!) is in hyper-creativity.
Suppose you need to depict the transition between night and morning, so you write “the light dawned.” A pretty sentence, but it’s one you could pick up at the clearance section. Perhaps you could change it to “the light conquered the sky.” That’s a slight improvement because it implies a struggle. You’re headed in the right direction. Your next version might be “the light dueled the sky,” which adds emotion to the conflict, as well as a clearer mental image. But Zusak plunges even deeper. Exactly what weapons are involved? Behold his masterful prose: “The light arm-wrestled the sky.”
As another example, maybe you’re trying to convey that a lady’s eyes are stern. If you’re an astute student of “show, don’t tell,” you’ll realize that you shouldn’t spoon-feed an interpretation to readers. Instead, you need to allow them to draw their own conclusions from the visual cues you give them.
“Hard” might be the first option that leaps to mind. But it still falls on the abstract side of the spectrum. What adjective would carry the right connotations? Think about the objects and situations you’d equate with sternness. Zusak decided on “bulletproof eyes.”
But what if a scene requires you to touch on a broader concept, such as denial, despair, or loyalty? These can be converted to palpable descriptions too. If I reverse-engineer Zusak’s revision process, he probably thought of how truth can hit people like a torrent, realized he could play off of that imagery, and ended up with “staunch the flow of truth.” When he wrote “pieces of shattered despair,” he was likely inspired by the brokenness depressed people feel. And instead of stating that a character favored the Nazi party, he grounded the fact in one of the five senses: “[She had] breath that smelled like heil Hitler.”
Personification is another helpful trick, as in these two snippets:
- There was nothing but the nothingness of life moving on with a shuffle, or a near-silent twitch.
- The words cobbled her in the back.
Hyper-creativity results in hyper-engaged readers who keep turning pages, buying your books, and sharing their enthusiasm with anyone who will listen. That’s the reputation you want to build in a crowded market where your work can easily get overlooked.
Now that you’ve been exposed to transformative knowledge about descriptions, a weighty responsibility rests on your shoulders. How can you ensure that you grow in this area?
- Analyze a book containing masterful prose. I encourage you to start with The Book Thief, but my other recommendations would be The Name of the Wind and The Great Gatsby. As you read, underline or jot down concrete phrases, particularly ultra-specific ones.
- Apply what you’ve learned to your environment. Whenever I step outside, I attempt to brainstorm the perfect way to describe the horizon. I’ve seen clouds that resemble a stormy sea with floating armadas, blueberry stains on a tablecloth, moth-eaten garments, popcorn, claw marks, spinal columns, and a starship fleet over a planet.
- Read poetry. Not all poems exhibit concreteness, but you’re more likely to encounter it there than in prose. A wonderful example is “I Am Love,” which was published here at SE.
- Expand your vocabulary. Sometimes your only limitation is a shortage of words. If you’re having trouble crafting descriptions, thumb through your thesaurus or dictionary.
After all of these exercises, you’ll be equipped to dive into your work-in-progress with a new awareness. So dredge away the slimy abstractions and sharpen your descriptions to a razor edge. You’ll tantalize readers before they’ve finished the first chapter!
Many moons ago, a series of suspiciously providential events led Daeus to cast his lot among the worldwide community of Christian storytellers. Since then, no reports indicate that he has come back out. Perhaps he is lost among those fine gallivanters forever. Rest in peace, Daeus Lamb.
Daeus dreams impossibly large (which doesn’t bother him a bit) and tends to bite off more than he can chew. Watch this in action as he tries to capture the depths of the fantasy genre on his YouTube channel, or as he seeks to express the meaning of life in just a short novelette. (Psst. It’s a popular little book called God of Manna and you can get it for free here.)