It was 5 years ago that I wrote a post for Writer Unboxed on using experiential description to add characterization to a narrative.
Pause for HOLY COW, 5 YEARS!? Yep, it was 2007. My, how time gallops.
I coined the phrase “experiential description” to express the blending of a character’s perceptions of a setting, person, or an action with description of the literal what it is/what is happening.
The reason I’m writing about this again is that I’ve been teaching experiential description in workshops at writers conferences, and my understanding of it has grown to appreciate that what makes experiential description work is that it’s gut-level, unconscious reactions or perceptions, not thoughts or internal monologue, that inject character into description.
Look at it this way: when you drive up to your home, you don’t simply see a rectangular structure with windows and doors and landscaping that includes green grass and an oak tree and a cluster of cedar trees.
No, all of your experiences are loaded into your instant of perception. Let’s say you notice that a window is open. Your internal description is not: The left corner window is open.
No, your experiential description might be: The baby’s window is open.
When you enter the kitchen, you don’t see: The kitchen has gray ceramic counters, a stainless steel sink, and a black refrigerator.
I call this a snapshot, a photographic image that only communicates physical qualities.
You might see: The custom-made gray ceramic counters looked as good as they did when they were new, and the black refrigerator and stainless steel sink were still great choices to set them off.
Yeah, I know this is a little clunky, but you get the point. A character’s experience and inner filters color the perception of “reality” with emotional components that characterize.
For example, what if you hated that kitchen instead of loving it? Then the experiential description becomes: The gray ceramic counters were as dull and depressing as ever, and the black refrigerator and stainless sink were like bruises on an eyesore that would never heal.
Same kitchen, same counter, same refrigerator, same sink—the reader will understand and see the scene in terms of what is physically there with either of those descriptions. But they will also know more about the inner workings of a character.
One more quickie example, a description of a person:
Snapshot: Sheila’s dress was blue.
Or, from within a character’s POV:
Character: Sheila’s dress was the same sleazy blue Steve’s mother had worn whenever she went out to get drunk.
Use experiential description for action, too.
Here are examples I give in my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells for experiential description of action. First, the objective description as a camera might film it:
Morticia leaned forward and her nostrils flared. Her fangs emerged and she sank them into Frank’s neck. Blood rushed into her mouth and dribbled down his neck. He moaned and writhed, but she pinned him to the wall and continued to drink his essence.
As described experientially through Morticia’s point of view:
Morticia leaned forward. The scent of Frank’s blood, pulsing just below the skin of his neck, aroused her. Her fangs lengthened and she sank them into a vein. The sweetness of blood washed over her tongue and poured down her throat. His moan aroused her further, and when he writhed within her grip, power rushed through her and she pinned him to the wall, drinking in the smell of his fear and relishing the rich taste of his essence.
And as experienced by Frank:
Frank shrank back when Morticia leaned forward, panic pounding in his mind. She was…smelling him? Oh, God, she had fangs, and they grew as he watched. She struck and twin points of pain pierced his neck. Hot liquid trickled down—his blood? A moan crawked out of his throat and he writhed, pushing with all his strength to escape. As if he were a child, she jammed him against the wall with terrible power.
This is not to say that straight-forward “snapshot” description isn’t a good thing to do. In fact, there are times when it is probably the right thing to do, especially in fast-moving action. Or an author can create a mood with skillful use of language in a description that is not related to character but to story. Stephen King is a master of this kind of imagery.
But there will be many times when the character coloring you add to a description of place or person or action can also deepen the characterization of the actors in your story. After all, the objective is to deliver the experience of the story to the reader—so why not enrich that experience with experiential description?
Image by mrskrebs.