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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Evocative Writing - The Senses

Anytime I smell a cinnamon apple candle, I am brought right to Christmas. It makes me think, not just of the candles we burn at that time of the year, but everything else that goes along with it: Christmas lights, songs that never grow old though I've heard them a hundred times, the atmosphere of Christmas and postcard depictions of sleighs and carolers and jolly old Father Christmas.

How can one little thing be so powerful? It's just a candle! I don't know the answer to that; but I do know that it's something that really happens, and happens to just about everyone, and has its own word to describe it.
I am very interested in evocative descriptions in my writing as well as that of others.
I remember the feelings a book gives me long after the last page is read; if it doesn't give me a strong feeling, where I almost physically react to it, then it hardly leaves an impression.
There is a bit from The Lord of the Rings that struck me when I noticed it way back when. I've always thought that Tolkien had a wonderful way with words, but I feel like he outdid himself on this one:

Suddenly a song began: a cold murmur, rising and falling. The voice seemed far away and immeasurably dreary, sometimes high in the air and thin, sometimes like a low moan from the ground. Out of the formless stream of sad but horrible sounds, strings of words would now and again shape themselves: grim, hard, cold words, heartless and miserable. The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered. Frodo was chilled to the marrow.
-- The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 8: Fog on the Barrow Downs

Tolkien could have just said, 'Frodo heard a creepy song that made his blood run cold.' Instead, he lets us form a picture in our minds, as if we were right there with Frodo.
I'd like to point out a few things about the description.

Firstly, synonyms are OK; it's fine to use words that will help you describe without repetition. Just don't use obscure, annoying words that will pull the reader out of the moment. Tolkien, a master of language, uses no words here which are so unfamiliar as to break the spell by making us break out our dictionaries.

Secondly, he uses precise and weighty words. Murmur. Dreary. Grim. Railing. Bereaved.
Of course it's never a good idea to use words that make you sound snobby or as if you're using a word simply because it sounds 'older' or 'medieval'. It has to fit with what you're writing, and with your actual ability to use the words correctly. But think about it: 'A great error' sounds a lot more serious than 'a big mistake'.  'Railing against' something means more than just complaining about it. Know your words and use them to their full advantage and you'll be a lot closer to evoking a visceral reaction from your readers.

Thirdly, go the extra mile. Tolkien could have stopped at heartless and miserable. Instead, he went a step further and continued with The night was railing against the morning ... etc. which works beautifully to chill us to the marrow right along with Frodo. That bit 'tells' rather than 'shows'; however, it works because of the 'showing' that went before.

What are some of your favorite evocative descriptions that you've read? 


  1. Rosemary Sutcliff is an absolute mistress of evocative writing. My favourite out of is has to be "the first faint blue whisper of wood smoke." (Sword at Sunset). Can you beat that for the way a wood fire smells?

  2. Oh, that is beautiful! I absolutely love writing that really pulls you in using all the senses to make it feel like you're really there.


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