Write Description Like E. Lockhart

There are a few books that I remember solely for the description. Sure, the brilliant plot or complex characters helped. But the voice and description are the sparkling centerpiece of the book. The book I just finished: We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart, was full of punching descriptions. She writes this piece to describe how her main character, Cadence, feels when her father is pulling out of the driveway, after engaging in an extramarital affair and deserting his wife and daughter:

“My father put a last suitcase into the backseat of the Mercedes…and started the engine.

Then he pulled out a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my ribcage and down into a flower bed. Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound,

then from my eyes,

my ears,

my mouth.

It tasted like salt and failure. The bright red shame of being unloved soaked the grass in front of our house, the bricks of the path, the steps to the porch. My heart spasmed among the peonies like a trout.”

I reread this section a few times, because as a reader, I was jolted out of the narrative. I was calmly reading, and then … her father shot her in cold blood? I disliked this passage because it pulled me out of the story, but the point of this paragraph was description of an emotion that could easily be stuffed into cliched phrases.

After analyzing this section, I came up with the following tips:

Use verbs.

The author’s usage of verbs and figurative actions are much more powerful than a string of overused adverbs. Out of all the stories in the world, many deal with a father leaving in disgrace. Few describe it like this one. Additionally, adverbs are often indicators of weak verbs, which in turn can indicate weak prose.

Make comparisons.

Cliches run rampant when it comes to similes. Please spare your readers the pain of wading through yet another description about your hero’s strong jawline and withering scowl. Lockhart took a different twist when she described Cadence’s friends.

“Johnny, he is bounce, effort, and snark….Mirren, she is sugar, curiosity, and rain. Gat…was contemplation and enthusiasm. Ambition and strong coffee.”

Use your senses.

What does your hero’s car smell like? Warm barbecue sauce, or sour milk from the time a milk jug spilled on the carpet? Is the seat leather cracked? Is it warm from the car being parked in the sun? Use your descriptions appropriately—for example, don’t indulge readers in a poetic description of the ally’s beauty when they are on the run for their lives—but also take time to sketch out what their surroundings and companions sound, look, smell, feel, and taste like.

What are your favorite descriptions from literature?

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