Paint with Words

John Steinbeck is a master at description. He has an incredible ability to create scene in such a way that the reader steps into the picture.

Pick up a copy of the novel Of Mice and Men and read the first three pages. Steinbeck takes us to a place alongside the Salinas River. There are sycamore trees with well-worn branches from countless passing hobos who sit before a blazing fire. Lizards skitter in the fallen leaves and rabbits hop along on their way to the water. A blue heron takes flight with mighty wings and wind rustles the leaves of the trees.

It is a calm, serene spot. A place to shelter after a long day walking the dusty roads. A place where boys come to swim and dry off on the sandy beach. In the distance rise the Gabilan Mountains, purple in the afternoon haze.

Into this scene come the main characters that travel together despite their dissimilarities. Once again, Steinbeck uses his skills to describe the men in such a way that we see the chisel face and lean, muscular body of the first and the soft, featureless face of the second.

Try writing a similar scene. Close your eyes and picture a place that you enjoy. A place that you know so well that every detail comes alive. Use your senses to hear, feel, see all that surrounds you. Taste the sharpness of the air as it is flavored by the scents of the plants growing there.

Imagine picking up a pencil and sketching the main points. Don’t forget to include those things far off in the distance as well as those closest to the edge of the tablet. Now add color, slowly, one at a time. Think of all the different hues that suffuse the scene.

Begin to write as if you have just turned a corner and stepped into the spot. Take your time. Don’t leave out tiny details, even if you think you are writing too much. Pretend that you are recreating the place for someone who has never been there, so colorfully that they are going to want to travel there with you. Write and write and write some more.

Step aside from your passage for a few days. Allow it to brew in your mind. Go back whenever something new strikes you and add it to the picture, then move away again.

Only after several days have passed do you spend time with your work. On this reading, refine your description. Combine sentences/phrases that complete each other. Eliminate only those items that are trivial or distract the reader. Change words that are weak for those that jump with power.

Are you pleased with your effort? Does your finished product sing? It should.

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