It’s one of the first creative writing lessons we’re taught: use all your senses. I remember sitting at my desk in second grade with a fun pack of Skittles while the teacher told us about how we needed to use our eyes, ears, noses, mouths, and hands to describe them.
I picked up the orange one (my favorite) and gave it a cursory glance. It was orange, round, and a little sticky—I popped it in my mouth and ate it. It tasted good. When Mrs. Bowman came around to see how we were progressing, I had written down nothing and eaten all of my Skittles.
It’s about capturing the essence, not the color
I like to think that I wasn’t just a hopeless barbarian in the throes mindless sugar-lust. I’d prefer to think that I understood, even then, that describing a Skittle with my senses didn’t actually do the Skittle justice. A Skittle isn’t appealing because it is orange and round and sticky—although I am sure that Mars, Inc. would disagree with me—a Skittle is appealing because of the magic it works on you. Skittles are brilliant little pieces of condensed joy that practically giggle when you pour them from the bag. That was something that words like “hard,” “chewy,” and “shiny” could never capture.
Prose writers should take a leaf out of the poet’s book when it comes to creating descriptive passages. Too often as writers, we fall back on the 2nd grade lesson: we revert back to describing grass as green. It’s true, but it’s not particularly interesting or informative. I’m going to assume the grass is green unless I’m told otherwise—I haven’t learned anything new about grass or about the world that the grass is in. I’m not engaging with the world more because there is green grass in it.
Moving beyond the five senses
In Whitman’s “A child said, what is grass?” the narrator proffers that grass is “itself a child,” “a uniform hieroglyphic,” “the handkerchief of the Lord,” or (my personal favorite) “the uncut hair of graves”. Grass isn’t just grass, it’s a literary force and a tool for the reader to interpret the world. The reader is forced to consider grass in a new way. If grass is a child, then the world is young and fresh. But if it’s the “uncut hair of graves” then we feel the world become forlorn and somber.
That’s the trick: to use descriptions to set a mood or tone, to get your reader in the right mindset. Creating robust and dynamic descriptions isn’t about listing detail: it’s about finding a way of description that captures some truth or essence of the thing being described.
Challenge your reader
The takeaway here is that you need to challenge your reader. Don’t be afraid to explore new ways of talking about something, to create new metaphors, to switch from adjectives to verbs. Create an interactive world where things and ideas are can touch each other, and touch the reader. A prose writer may tell you that a cool breeze was blowing the grass. A poet will tell you the grass was shivering in the wind, and perhaps you’ll shiver a little too.
How about you? What experience do Skittles give to you?
Look around you and write a description of what you see for five minutes. Then take another ten minutes to go through what you’ve written and replace any adjectives with verb phrases, metaphors, similes or allusions.
Post your before and after in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to give feedback on a few practices by other writers.
Have fun! And remember, don't be afraid to eat the Skittles!