A few years ago I taught at a high school with a strong Arts program. At the end of the school year, the fruits of students’ labour were put up for sale in a silent auction. I remember walking through the room, mouth agape and eyes bulging in awe of the talent I saw.
Later in the staff room a colleague and I, both of us English teachers, both aspiring authors, were fawning over the accomplishments of our students and I remember saying, “I wish I had talent like that.” My colleague assured me that I did. When I protested that I couldn’t even draw a wiggly line, she said to me, “You’re an artist; you paint word pictures.”
It was a moment of epiphany, one that’s stayed with me to this day.
Writing Lessons from The Beatles
As writers, we draw worlds and paint scenes with our words. It is our job to carefully select the exact words that help our readers see, hear and feel what our characters see, hear and feel as our stories unfold.
I picked the first line of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” as the title of this post because it demonstrates the creativity writers must employ during the writing process. Lennon and McCartney could have said “Picture yourself in a boat on a river in autumn at sunset,” but they didn’t.
Instead, they imagined orange leaves hanging from the trees, curling over and back on themselves as they dry in the sun until they look like tangerines ripe for the picking, and a sunset with shades of yellow and orange, sky cloudy and viscous as marmalade.
The words paint a peaceful scene, what with the calmness of the river, the sweetness of the marmalade and the tangerines, juicy and full of promise. The song is not known for its run-of-the-mill lyrics, but for the words behind the iconic imagery it evokes
How to Paint Word Pictures
The next time you describe a person, place or thing, use words as your brushes.
Be conscious of when to paint in broad strokes (as in “a boat on a river”) and when to switch to a thinner brush (think “tangerine dreams” and “marmalade skies”). Rather than use commonplace colors, think in terms of paint colour palates (How many shades of white paint are available at your local hardware store?).
Appeal to the senses. Make your reader smell, see, hear, feel and taste what you imagine.
Do you try to paint word pictures when you write?
Place yourself in a scene. You could be on the riverboat with Lennon and McCartney, in a place that evokes the essence of your own inner peace, or right where you’re sitting as you read this post.
Now paint a word picture. Feel free to be true to life or embellish. Appeal to as many senses as you can. What do you smell, see, hear, feel, or taste? Your goal is to paint a picture with your words vivid enough for your reader to imagine sitting right next to you in the scene.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you're time is up, post your scene in the comments so we can travel down the river with you.
Remember: you are the artist, and your words, your paint and brushes.