Re:Fiction - The Fiction Writers' Magazine

Powerful Descriptive Writing: Make Your Fiction Crackle with Physicality

Why You Need Physicality in Your Descriptive Writing

Big-picture setting is usually easy for writers to establish. You could say that your story takes place in Montana, and readers might imagine a place where everyone lives on a ranch.

But reality is richer. In order to write a meaningful, realistic setting, writers need physicality.

I was lucky enough to study with award-winning author Kekla Magoon in my MFA program. She describes physicality in literary terms as “close details [that reveal] how the characters inhabit the world through their physical presence” (Magoon).

A Montanan character might know intimately the sight of spruce trees racing along a mountain spine, the feeling of a pilled quilt spread out across a bed, and the sound of elk bugling in wild fields. 

Details like this allow us to become part of the fictional world---touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, and smelling what our characters do. 

In the best fiction, these details also work to heighten tension and develop plot and character.

Finding Physicality in the 5 Senses (With Examples from Your Favorite Books) 

Touch

Ashley Hope Pérez’s Out of Darkness is the type of book that keeps you up at night. And it’s full of powerful descriptive writing. 

In an early scene, Pérez uses touch to show us how protagonist Naomi feels about her stepfather, Henry, and her now-dead mother:

“Henry came to where [Naomi] sat and offered a hand to help her up. She ignored it, rearranged her legs quickly, and stood up on her own…. She threaded her fingers through the tail of her long braid” (39). 

First, she refuses touch. Then she touches her own braid in a way that makes readers think there might be something deeper in that gesture.

Next Pérez writes, “To touch her braid was to remember her mother. The code was simple: when her mother had a braid, she belonged to Naomi. When Estella fixed her hair in swirls and curls and combs, she belonged to her dancing and to the men she danced with (and later, to Henry)” (40). 

There’s a river of pain coursing through these moments of physicality. We can feel with our own fingers. 

For your own descriptive writing...

  • Think about your character’s surroundings. Her bedroom, her house, her desk at school. Is there a particular possession or object---like a braid for Naomi in Out of Darkness---that holds extra importance for your character when she touches it? 
  • How you can use this object to show the reader how your character feels about someone, or some event, that’s important in her life---and in your plot?

Taste

Anne Shirley’s first meal in Anne of Green Gables isn’t a pleasant experience. She’s about to be sent back to the orphanage she thought she would leave forever---all because she’s a girl.

L. M. Montgomery writes, “In vain [Anne] nibbled at the bread and butter and pecked at the crab apple preserve….she really did not make any headway at all” (26).

When Marilla asks her why she’s not eating, Anne says, “I’m in the depths of despair” (26). She goes on to explain to Marilla (who has never experienced the depths of despair) that “When you try to eat a lump comes right up in your throat and you can’t swallow anything, not even if it was chocolate caramel”. 

This sad, taste-based display is part of what convinces Marilla to keep Anne around.

For your own descriptive writing...

  • Remember that your characters eat! Stay away from boring pancake breakfasts that have no point and instead highlight meals that are tight with tension. Meals that happen after a huge setback or failure, for example, or during a fierce argument. 
  • During these tense or meaningful meals, what’s on the table? Does the flavor of the food repulse the character? Or is your character gobbling it up so fast he hardly tastes anything? 

Sight

Early in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Mr. Lockwood struggles through a snowstorm to get to the main house, where he is relieved to arrive at the “large, warm, cheerful apartment” which “glowed delightfully in the radiance of an immense fire…. And near the table, laid for a plentiful evening meal, I was pleased to observe the ‘missis’, an individual whose existence I had never previously suspected” (10).

This all seems cozy enough so far. But quickly, Brontë establishes the frigidity of the place: “I bowed and waited, thinking she would bid me take a seat. She looked at me, leaning back in her chair, and remained motionless and mute” (10). 

Here, the visual details clash, creating great tension in the setting. What is this Wuthering Heights place, we think, where things look warm and cozy but feel colder than the snowstorm outside? 

For your own descriptive writing...

  • Close your eyes. Imagine yourself in your character’s skin. Walk through an important or meaningful part of your story. Take in the visual details of your surroundings. 
  • Does anything stand out to you? Is there something out of place or clashing, like in Wuthering Heights? Or is there a detail---a knife lying askew on a cutting board littered with dried cheese, for example---that can highlight a feeling of fear or confusion in your character?
  • Work with several details until you find the one or two per scene that most powerfully plant us in your character’s reality and increase tension. 

Sound 

The entire first page of Alaskan author Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child is a study in the power of sound. 

Here’s the first paragraph: 

Mabel had known there would be silence. That was the point, after all. No infants cooing or wailing. No neighbor children playfully hollering down the lane. No pad of small feet on wooden stairs worn smooth by generations, or clackety-clack of toys along the kitchen floor. All those sounds of her failure and regret would be left behind, and in their place there would be silence. (3)

Mabel has just moved to Alaska, leaving behind the graves of her stillborn children. Ivey’s hearing-based details are sharp and specific, each one a sound Mabel will never hear from a child of her own. 

Mabel thought she would welcome Alaska’s abiding silence, but “When she swept the plank floor, the broom bristles scritched like some sharp-toothed shrew nibbling at her heart. When she washed the dishes, plates and bowls clattered as if they were breaking to pieces” (3). 

When you read these details, you can feel the shrew nibbling at your heart. You flinch at the sound likened to dishes shattering. Mabel’s pain is as real as the chair you’re sitting in.

Here’s how you can put sound to work for you:

  • Write down a list of all the sounds your character hears within a normal day. Keep this list near you as you write. 
  • When you’re working on a new scene (or revising), check your list of sounds. Which sounds can amplify the emotions you’re hoping to get across? 
  • Now that you’ve chosen a few sounds, find fresh ways to use them. Figure out how to squeeze every drop of physicality and power out of them.

Smell

Young Marie-Laure of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning All the Light We Cannot See is blind. She relies heavily on the four senses that do work for her.

Doerr describes one of Marie-Laure’s last good summers through smell: “All summer the smells of nettles and daisies and rainwater purl through the gardens. She and her father cook a pear tart and burn it by accident, and her father opens all the windows to let out the smoke” (60). 

These details are lovely and innocent, but they aren’t pointless. They show us what Marie-Laure’s summer is: it is flowers blooming and welcome rains falling and memorable moments with her father. 

And they set the stage for Doerr’s next sensory move. Later in the same paragraph, he masterfully raises a smell-based note of alarm: “And yet by early autumn, once or twice a week, at certain moments of the day…. Marie-Laure looks up from her book and believes she can smell gasoline under the wind. As if a great river of machinery is steaming slowly, irrevocably, toward her” (61). 

From everything that comes before this paragraph, readers know that World War II is steadily building in Europe. Everything about Marie-Laure’s life will change. But for now, her only sense of the impending horror comes through her sense of smell. 

For your own descriptive writing...

  • Do some smells make you cringe with a shameful accompanying memory? Do some smells make you want to curl up on your mother’s lap again? What smells have a powerful effect on your character?
  • Figure out how to use those smell-memories to deepen the tension in a scene. Maybe a child walks into her new stepmother’s home and smells something burning in the oven, and it yanks her back to her own mother’s warm kitchen with its scents of freshly baked bread. 

Things to Keep in Mind about Descriptive Writing:

Each of these authors uses physicality to do more than just describe a realistic setting. The next time you read a favorite book, take note of how the author uses physicality to deepen the sense of place, heighten tension, reveal character, and advance plot. 

When you sit down with your writing, make sure physicality is working hard for you, too. 


Works Cited

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. New York: Scribner, 2014. Print.
Ivey, Eowyn. The Snow Child. New York: Little, Brown, 2012. Print.
Magoon, Kekla. Letter to the author. 14 February 2015. TS.
Montgomery, L. M. Anne of Green Gables. 1908. New York: Bantam, 1998. Print.
Pérez, Ashley Hope. Out of Darkness. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Lab, 2015. Print. 

Laura Ojeda Melchor holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and spends her days chasing after her adventurous toddler. A freelance writer and fiction novelist, she lives in Alaska with her family. She enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, exploring Alaska, and going for walks in her delightfully foresty neighborhood.
For her fiction, she’s represented by a fantastic agent at Upstart Crow Literary. She’s also a contributing writer for Book Riot. You can find her at her online home, lauraojedamelchor.com.

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