The Horror in Descriptive Writing (Telling a Story that Readers feel)

Writing is about telling a story. But writing a story is not just about getting that story down, its about filling that base story with words upon words so that the reader is invested enough to feel it.

I write tragedy. Sure, if you read any of my work their is always going to be a happy, or at the very least hopeful ending.

But still my writing tends to be filled with pain and sometimes horror.

And that means that descriptions and beautifully written paragraph are something that get across what I want while also making you understand (and hopefully feel) what the character is going through.

And this can be a bit of a balancing act. Because sometimes beautifully descriptive paragraphs can be meaningless if they aren’t needed.

I mean who needs a paragraph of descriptive poetry to tell you that the person sat down in a chair?

But sometimes this type of writing can draw you in and make you stay and feel what they are feeling.

Here is an example from one of my favorite books. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. (Just a warning this is about someone getting badly burned and is a bit gruesome.)

I imagine, dear reader, that you’ve had some experience with heat. Perhaps you’ve tipped a boiling kettle at the wrong angle and the steam crept up your sleeve; or, in a youthful dare, you held a match between your fingers for as long as you could. Hasn’t everyone, at least once, filled the bathtub with overly hot water and forgot to dip in a toe before committing the whole foot? If you’ve only had these kinds of minor incidents, I want you to imagine something new. Imagine turning on one of the elements of your stove–let’s say it’s the electric kind with black coils on top. Don’t put a pot of water on the element, because the water only absorbs the heat and uses it to boil. Maybe some tiny tendrils of smoke curl up from a previous spill on the burner. A slight violet tinge will appear, nestled there in the black rings, and then the element assumes some reddish-purple tones, like unripe blackberries. It moves towards orange and finally–finally!–an intense glowing red. Kind of beautiful, isn’t it? Now, lower your head so that your eyes are even with the top of the stove and you can peer through the shimmering waves rising up. Think of those old movies where the hero finds himself looking across the desert at an unexpected oasis. I want you to trace the fingertips of your left hand gently across your right palm, noting the way your skin registers even the lightest touch. If someone else were doing it, you might even be turned on. Now, slam that sensitive, responsive hand directly onto that glowing element.

And hold it there. Hold it there as the element scorches Dante’s nine rings right into your palm, allowing you to grasp Hell in your hand forever. Let the heat engrave the skin, the muscles, the tendons; let it smolder down to the bone. Wait for the burn to embed itself so far into you that you don’t know if you’ll ever be able to let go of that coil. It won’t be long until the stench of your own burning flesh wafts up, grabbing your nose hairs and refusing to let go, and you smell your body burn.

I want you to keep that hand pressed down, for a slow count of sixty. No cheating. One Mis-sis-sip-pi, two Mis-sis-sip-pi, three Mis-sis-sip-pii.i.i.i At sixty Mis-sis-sip-pi, your hand will have melted so that it now surrounds the element, becoming fused with it. Now rip your flesh free.

I have another task for you: lean down, turn your head to one side, and slap your cheek on the same element. I’ll let you choose which side of your face. Again sixty Mississippis; no cheating. The convenient thing is that your ear is right there to capture the snap, crackle, and pop of your flesh.

Now you might have some idea of what it was like for me to be pinned inside that car, unable to escape the flames, conscious enough to catalogue the experience until I went into shock. There were a few short and merciful moments in which I could hear and smell and think, still documenting everything but feeling nothing. Why does this no longer hurt? I remember closing my eyes and wishing for complete, beautiful blackness. I remember thinking that I should have lived my life as a vegetarian.

Does this writing make you wince? Most of the people that I’ve read it to have. Does it bring the scene of this happening to your mind? can you see it happening?

Its horrible and can make you flinch away from it.

But it does its job.

You can see what’s happening, you can feel what’s happening. And if you’re like me it made you stick around to read more.

this is something that telling a story can do, that writing do.

It can make you see and feel what the author wants you to.

And I think that’s what writing a story is, what being an author is.

It’s telling a story in a way that you stay invested in the character, in a way that you feel what they feel.

And I think that’s one of the reasons that I write.

But what about you?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: