Extreme Wordsmithing Makeover:  4 Tips to writing ACTIVE description

Continuing our Extreme Wordsmithing Makeover series, we spent much of August diving into STATIC description and I taught you a technique called FOCUS, an acronym that reminded us to first put the description through the eyes of the POV character. Then, it gave an overview of the parts of description:  Fact, Observations, Close Up and Symbolism, all gathered together in a snapshot description, something we use to make an impression on the reader.

Today, we’re going to use the same acronym, but we’ll apply it as we move our character throughout the scene, experiencing the storyworld as we interact with the actions of the scene.

What is ACTIVE Description?

Active Description is simply putting the description through the eyes of a character then describing the scene (using all the FOCUS elements and 5 senses) as they move through it. While static description can be used powerfully to snapshot a person, place or thing, active description keeps the story moving and is integrated into the scene. (It’s important to use both in a story!)  Just like static description, active description can add a powerful emotional undercurrent to the scene.

Consider this passage from Sons of Thunder: 

Markos speared the water. The cool lick of it scooped his breath, slicked from his body the heat of the day.

He surfaced fast, gulped air, and dove back to the ocean floor, kicking toward the cave. A deep thrumming rumbled his bones even as he scrabbled over the slippery rock outside the entrance. The jaws raked his skin as he levered himself through a crevice just big enough for a boy of seventeen.


Although it’s an active description, it is meant to create a sense of tension as he pushes himself into the cave.  I could have written it more simply: Fear coiled inside him as he pushed himself into the cave.  But I wanted to description to convey the emotion, and not name it directly.

Here’s another passage from the same book:

She sat at the dressing table. He knew he should turn away, but he couldn’t quite find it in him. Instead, he watched as she curled her hair tight to her face with her fingers, held it there for a moment. She rouged her cheeks, her earlobes. Lined dark kohl on her green eyes. Used her pinky to apply her blood-red lipstick.

Her gaze flickered over to him. “You like watching me get ready?”

He turned away, burying his face in his hands. Her laughter trickled high. “Oh, Markos, you’re such fun!”

His chest burned. “I’ll wait for you out in the hall.” Finding his feet, he pushed away the chair, reaching for the door. But she had crossed the room and now planted her hand over his. He turned even as she slid close, her hand on his chest. He hadn’t noticed how small she was, really, without her costumes, or wrapped in her vamp persona. Now, she seemed almost petite, even…needy. Especially since the tease had left her eyes. Her fragrance wound around him, tugging at him.


The hero is watching a girl getting dressed, and I use the description to heighten the temptation and lure for him.  The subtleties of words like blood-red, his chest burning, her fragrance winding around him, tugging-all words that suggest temptation, or being lured into trouble.

Great wordsmithing is about using every word to its full effect, and creating paragraphs that do double duty—inform as well as add feeling to the scene.  In this way, you’re adding and emotional sense to the story without telling the reader how to feel.


How do you word paint for emotional effect?

Tip #1: Create a Metaphorical word pool. As you write, your words will tend toward specific verbs and nouns.  Taking a step away from these, you’ll find that they might fall in categories of description.

For example, describing the sky, you might say that the clouds swirled against a canvass of blue.  Okay, “swirled” and “canvass” both evoke a sense of “painting.”  You now have your metaphorical category.  Look for other “painting words” as you continue the description – brush, paint, mix, blend, stir.  You can also go further, and take from the mind of the painter, or even use well known painters to bring in emotional metaphor.

Eg:  lavender splotched the canvass of blue, as if the painter, frustrated, took his brush and swept across with angry, thick strokes.


Tips #2: Pick Verbs that convey the FEELING of what you are describing.  Marcos feels like he’s being gulped, or eaten, going into the jaws of the cave, and I wanted to convey a sense of panic as he goes inside.  So I used words of violence:  Speared, rumbled, scrabbled, raked.

If I were describing a giant crater in the earth, one made by a meteor, I might use words like jagged, and ripped, and bruised.

But if I were describing a hole that would become my long desired swimming pool, I’d go with, scooped, or even carved from the earth.  By the way, sometimes, if I’m having trouble finding my metaphorical pool, I just write the description, and see what verbs I naturally use.  From there, I can find the metaphorical pool.  (I.e., in this one, I think if ice cream with the verbs I used for the pool description).


Tip #3: Give your POV character a physical response to the description.  Ie, Marcos is hot, so the water is cool, yet dangerous. He has mixed emotions about being there – so I show that in the verbs I use.

Note the subtle tension in these sentences:  The cool lick (a positive feeling) of it scooped his breath (negative), slicked from his body the heat of the day. (positive)  He surfaced fast, gulped air, and dove back to the ocean floor… (negative).


Tip #4: You could also use a metaphor that captures the physical response, something that would give a similar physical response.  For example, in my pool example, I could say: Staring at the dark expanse, edged with rich, chocolate curls of earth, I tasted the cool water on my lips, sweet and sloppy, drenching me. A shiver of delight shimmed right down to my belly and I could hardly wait to dive in.

Obviously, I’m using the feeling of eating ice cream, and equating it with my dreams of diving into my pool.


Note:  Don’t use TOO many metaphors – one strong one will do.  But find the right one, and use it well.

Next week we’ll put it all together, and wordsmith our descriptions for emotional effect!


Go! Write something brilliant!

smw sig without background

The Reason We Write

My friend, Lori, posted this quote on my Facebook page last week:

“We write to taste life twice.” ~Anais Nin, author

I think she posted the quote for two reasons:

  1. I love quotes. Love, love, love them.
  2. I am a writer who often wrestles with the why of writing. You know what I mean: Why do we willingly do all of this? The writing. The rewriting. The deadlines.

I think my friend read that quote and thought, “Beth will ‘get’ this.”

And I did.

But I did more than read the quote and think, “Good one.” I pondered the quote for a day or two … until it became this blog post.

I agree with Anais Nin that writing is a way to taste life again — to reexamine our experiences. And initially, this sounds like an opportunity to sift through all things pleasant. As I writer of contemporary romance, I can “taste twice” all those happy, fulfilling moments of my life. As I scan through my memories filled with laughter and hope, I write scenes where my characters fall in love. Or conquer obstacles. Come to know themselves better. Gain recognition — or reconciliation.

Ah, so many fulfilling life moments to relive as I write my stories and weave real life experiences — emotion — into my fiction.

But what of those other moments in my life? The struggles? The heartaches? The disappointments? The losses? There can be no true second tasting of life without those.

What is the value of “tasting life twice” if it means experiencing again those painful moments that broke my heart — or shattered a dream or strained a relationship?

As a writer, I have to choose to be brave enough to go back into my past. I choose to ask God to redeem my life — all of it — through the words I write. Only then can I also see the lessons he has taught me through the tear-soaked times. Only then can I see how I’ve changed and who I’ve become. Only then can I see more clearly who God is — instead of limiting him to who I thought he was.

How does this practically apply to us as writers?

We are tasting life twice when we write — the sweet, savory moments flavored by success and contentment, as well as the salty, bitter moments soaked in tears and regrets and loss. We write about all of it — and we risk lacing our words with real emotion — from our hearts — so that we connect with our readers’ hearts.

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Getting Personal with Our Readers

Writing my third novel, Somebody Like You, felt like a series of virtual “Mother, may I?” giant steps. You know, the ones where you s-t-r-e-t-c-h your leg out in front of you as far as you can … and lean a little farther … praying you won’t fall flat on your face on the cement sidewalk before you plant your foot on firm ground again and move ahead. And then you repeat, repeat, repeat as you advance to the finish line.

Yep. Writing Somebody Like You was all about stretching and balancing what I knew with what I was learning. And praying that I — and the story — wouldn’t fall flat.

Taking on the high concept story — Can a young widow fall in love with her husband’s reflection? — was one thing. But the decision to up my game as an author and layer in stronger emotions backed me into a corner more than once.

Why? To conquer it I had to get personal.

It’s one thing to endow imaginary characters with hopes and dreams and Dark Moments and Wounds, Lies and Fears. It’s something else all together to go mucking around in my oh-so real hopes and dreams … and hurts.

If we want to write real characters who make our readers laugh out loud or cry as they turn the pages of our books, then we have to delve into our hearts and remember the events and the people who made us laugh out loud and cry behind closed doors — or in public.

In Somebody Like You, my heroine is a military widow. My husband Rob was in the military for over 20 years, so I understand that life, including deployment. While I haven’t been widowed, several close friends have been widowed at young ages.

My strongest connection came as I wrote my hero, Stephen, who is estranged from his identical twin brother Sam. I have a twin sister (not identical). And I am also in an unexpected season of estrangement with my extended family.

The estrangement in my novel was a carefully orchestrated and researched plot point.

In my own life? I’ve wept. Ranted to silent walls and a few trusted friends. Ached so deep in my soul there are no words to describe it. Lain on the floor before God and left this eSTRANGEment in his hands, again and again and again.

Could I write Stephen’s story?

Yes. To meet my goal and layer in true, honest emotion, then I had refuse to mute my own emotions. I know exactly how my characters feel. I want my readers to experience Somebody Like You in a strong, visceral way. At times I wrote a scene where Stephen wrestled with the years of distance between him and Sam even as I cried about my own situation. I let my emotions fuel my writing.

When have you let your emotions fuel your writing?

Do You Ever Get Personal with Your Readers? Click to Tweet

Let Your Emotions Fuel Your Writing Click to Tweet


Emotion: It Don’t Come Easy

“If you do not breathe through the writing, if you do not cry out in the writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.” ~Anais Nin (1903-1997), author


With every book I write, I try to up my game.  I have Susie May Warren and Rachel Hauck to thank for that focus. “Write something brilliant,” says Susie. And then get more brilliant with every story.

When I started writing my novel Somebody Like You, which releases this May, I knew exactly what my focus was going to be: layering in stronger, deeper emotion.

Virtual writer’s gauntlet thrown down – by me.

Challenge accepted – also by me.

About halfway through writing Somebody Like You, I Skyped with Rachel and burst into tears. In between sobs, I told her I was tearing up my contract and returning my advance. No exaggeration. I could not write this book. It was pushing me to the edge of my limits.

Rachel listened. She encouraged. She prayed for me.

And then she pushed me over the edge.

Her verbal push sounded something like this: “There is no backing out of this.” PUSH. “You can write this book.” PUSH. “You will write this book.“ PUSH.

My decision to layer in stronger, deeper emotion into Somebody Like You cost me more than I ever anticipated.  Why? Because if I wanted my imaginary characters to express emotions that my readers connected with, I had to tap into very real emotions inside me.

While the story is a contemporary romance, it also examines themes of twins and family, widowhood and grief, loss, estrangement, brokenness … all wrapped around the Story Question: Can a young widow fall in love with her husband’s reflection?

Another question I had to answer? How honest was I going to be as I wove stronger, deeper emotion into my novel?


  • I had to step back into times in my life when being a twin was painful because teachers compared my sister and I all through our school years. I heard “Why can’t you be more like Brenda?” just as much as she heard “Why can’t you be more like Beth?”


  • I had to revisit the intense shock and grief I felt when friends were widowed – one, when she was expecting her second child.


  • I had to begin to take stumbling steps through the shock of my estrangement from my family. Even as I wrote a novel dealing with fractured relationships, I wrote very real questions in my personal journal: How had this happened? How would this end? Where are you in this, God?

Author Anais Nin had it right when she said we must breathe and cry out and sing in writing.

And we must grieve too. And ache. And laugh. And rejoice. And fall in love … and out of love. Doubt God … and find out way back to him again.

This is what makes our writing and our characters come alive to our readers … because this is what real life is made of.


The Real Life Challenge of Layering in Character Emotion Click to Tweet

Emotion: It Don’t Come Easy  Click to Tweet