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12 Ways to Write Unique Description

17 November 2017 on Blog, Storystorm   Tags:

We’ve all heard the adages. “Kill the cliché.” “Make it new.” “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” But how does one do this? There are several easy ways. No pleading with the capricious gods of innovation necessary!

Note: I focus on how to un-cliché an image, but this can apply to clichéd characters, plot/dialogue, situations, and topics/themes.

First, since description is attitude, try describing the image from a different perspective. How would a mechanic, a doctor, a child, a fish, a philanthropist, a Disney villain see or experience the image?

Second, try describing the image from an unexpected angle; a cup from the bottom up, for example. Or come at it from a distance (from a tennis court in Paris to gripping the mug in your mother’s California townhouse).

Third, pick an aspect of the image, and generate about twenty similes. Fifteen is not enough! The grounds that first come to mind tend to be the most clichéd. (Eyes are blue as ocean, as the sky, as blueberry, as a vat of indigo, as a kiddy pool, as a Saturday morning). The further you push, the more inventive you’ll become. Press into the unknown, trusting your subconscious process of association. Don’t worry if it the relation isn’t logical, emotional sense can be just as powerful (sometimes more so).

A simile also offers one the opportunity to develop feeling and mood—along with a host of other connotations—so use the grounds reveal your speaker’s attitude, further the theme, or expand the scope of the image (See Maryann Moore’s “The Fish”).

Fourth, evoke the five senses, but not the expected senses. If there’s a 4th of July cookout, don’t comment on the smell of grilling burgers or cut grass, instead, focus in on a surprising detail, one that is unique to the scene, out of place, or reveals the mood or attitude of the speaker. If the speaker thinks the cookout is depressing, describe the smell of green pool water, the pinching metal chairs, sound of hornets hovering around the burgers no one’s eating, etc.

Fifth, be a deductive detective. Given a scene, think about what your reader is going to assume, and see if you can challenge those assumptions (or complicate them). If you’ve got a bed, make it lumpy; if you’ve got a kitchen, give it a cement smell; if you’ve got a sunset, make it dull.

Sixth, mix up your diction. Part of the reason you might be straying into cliché is that you’ve fixated on a standard lexicon. Monotony is torture! Go get your diction-ary and do some digging. BUT! Don’t over-decorate with adjectives or use too many archaic, obscure terms. In an interview with James Tate, Charles Simic suggests, rather than writing a word the reader won’t understand, you should “find a word we all know but don’t use.”

Seven, cut out expected adverbs and adjectives. (This is a good rule in general as they weigh down your verbs). Only use an adverb that changes the meaning of the verb in a significant way. (No ran quickly or screamed loudly). Only use adjectives when they add important mood, tone, or meaning. Beware of using adjectives and adverbs to intensify.

Eight, if you must use a clichéd concept, couch it in an unexpected way. If you’re going to write a poem about the peaceful beauty of nature, end it with a line like: “I have wasted my life” (Thanks for that gem, James Wright). You can make an old idea new by giving it an unusual context.

Nine, no one wants a one tone poem, right? That’s like a using a calculator that only adds. So include both negative and positive description. This complexity increases energy and intrigue and suggests a thoughtful speaker.

Ten, get specific. The difference between a song lyric and a poem is that song lyrics tend toward vague, board statements.  So do clichés. Try to pick out what physical detail encapsulates the general emotion. Then, “I was lonely” becomes: “The table held twelve chairs but was set for one,” and “my heart was vacant” becomes: “when you hugged me, I became a vase, a dry well, a cup with a crack in the bottom.”

Eleven, use mystery. Your description might be cliché because it’s telling too much, filling in unnecessary details and connecting all the dots so that there’s no surprise, no wonder. Play around with cutting, removing all but the most interesting aspects of the image. Of course, it’s easy to cut too much so the poem becomes inaccessible (again, balance).

Twelve, do the reverse. If your subject is depressing or dark, write the poem in an upbeat voice. If your subject is silly, give it a serious line or two. If your poem is serious, use a flippant tone. A compassionate serial killer is more interesting than an emotionless one. A sociopathic nurse more compelling than a caring one. Joy in the middle of misery is more powerful that joy at a happy moment. Likewise, a snag of sadness when one should be happy.

Katie Brunero is a reader for Barnstorm.

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