Characterize through Experiential Description, Part 2

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.

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About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at rayrhamey.com.

Comments

    • says

      Linda,

      An excellent question. In regards to showing characters’ thoughts through an omniscient narrator, you could always take a leaf out of the movie-maker’s book—that is, use a character’s physical expressions and vocal tones to tell the reader what they are thinking (unless the movie happens to have Morgan Freeman narrating). For example, here is an excerpt from our novel, Tales from the Kingdome: The Knight in Screeching Armor.

      “Princess Amanda obviously couldn’t find anything wrong with this, because she didn’t say anything more, but proceeded to mumble things under her breath while throwing the two cousins annoyed looks every so often.”

      We hope this helps.
      DZ Posca´s last blog post ..The book trailer for our novel!

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  1. says

    Ray,
    This is so timely. I am struggling with this problem in my NaNo novel. My authorial descriptions of setting are flat and dull. I need to get deeper into the POV character’s head and channel how the character perceives the setting This post is so helpful. Thanks for sharing these insights, Ray.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..My Character Hijacked My Story. Now What?

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  2. says

    This is such an interesting article. I think being able to tap into this POV is paramount. This is really nicely put here, thanks. I will keep this in mind during my final edit process!

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  3. says

    Linda, in an omniscient narrative it is the author who colors the narrative to create mood or characterization–and there’s no reason why, when the narrative is focused on a specific character that description can’t be given the character’s flavoring

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  4. says

    Ooo, love the examples! What you’ve done is push the words from simply “image” to “emotion” — in a way that not only engages readers, but also informs them more about the character. Love it!

    And yes, sometimes (many times, in fact) “image” is probably sufficient, and overdoing “emotion” would become overwhelming. But you’ve got to know how to do both in order to find the right balance.

    Thanks for the tips!
    Kristan Hoffman´s last blog post ..We all we got

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  5. says

    What a fantastic example of how we can (and should) use the character’s experiences to bring descriptions to life. I hadn’t heard the term experiential description, but I love it. The term is a perfect summation of this technique.

    As I was reading the post and your examples I realized that I often use experiential description when writing in first person, but rarely when I’m writing third person. I love how you’ve demonstrated this technique using a deep third point of view. Something to work on going forward.
    Roxanne´s last blog post ..The Power of a Well-Told Story

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  6. Erika Harlitz Kern says

    Thank you, Ray! This is a very helpful post. I am currently in the process of rewriting to make my characters more present in the text and this post is just excellent. Reading your examples, I realized that I have used experiential description in a number of places, not understanding that that was what I was doing! :D

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  7. says

    Excellent work. What you have highlighted for us is the power of personalization. One can learn more about a character by seeing the world through their eyes, and as a result the reader will naturally feel closer to those characters, be they vampires or hapless victims.
    DZ Posca´s last blog post ..The book trailer for our novel!

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  8. says

    First of all: Five years? I remember when WU was launched. That can’t have been five years ago! Time flies….

    Second: Yes. This tip is still relevant and always will be. Experiential description paints a fuller, more detailed picture because it describes objects as well as the describer. We see the attitudes, emotions, concerns, and history of the POV character through the way they describe the world around them. Experiential description reveals both setting and character, doing twice the work of boring, physical descriptions.
    Kristin Laughtin´s last blog post ..Revision updates and Prop 30 outcome

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  9. says

    “Experiential description”—I’ve been teaching this for years, but just didn’t have a handy name for it! Thank you. I teach it as a way to characterize that is preferable to clichéd physical reactions. Everyone alive has a thumping heart or a clenching jaw or gets a lump in their throat—that’s simply the way emotion manifests in our bodies. But by combining character with setting and action you have enough variables to come up with with any number of interesting emotional expressions. This is one aspect of craft for which going back to study old masters like John Cheever won’t steer you wrong.
    Kathryn Craft´s last blog post ..How do you get back up there? Part 2

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  10. Sally McDonald says

    I can always count on you to give great tips on the craft of writing with excellent examples. Thank you.

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  11. says

    This is a great way of looking at and thinking about description. I write non-fiction science and picture books which can be a tricky crossover. This method makes the differences easy to spot and will help improve my writing. Thanks!

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  12. says

    Ray, I like this post. I noticed this practice in some of my favorite books. I remember observing to myself that what made the description so good was that it was colored by characters’ perceptions — it absolutely added depth. Thanks for confirming my instincts on this!

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  13. Cathy says

    This was a timely post for me. Thank you for the excellent examples. I look forward to applying this technique to both my children’s chapter book and middle grade book. The challenge will be maintaining the voices of a seven-year-old boy and a twelve-year-old girl. This has the potential to push my writing to the next level. Definitely filing this post for future reference.

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