Language that sings out to the reader is often poetic and beautiful. But most of all, it’s honest. It’s vivid. Language that captures the reader plums the depths and gets right to the heart of the story. What does it take to write like that?
First, it takes getting to know your story so well that you’re breathing and tasting it. The characters are family to you. The story world is one you’ve know better than your backyard, and the emotions, well you just might have felt them more deeply than your own joys and hurts.
Second, it means passing by the first description that comes to mind. Dig deeper, take your time until a line strikes right at the core of what you’re trying to convey. And then dig deeper still.
Here’s one from David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. He describes the boss who oversees the field hands as a woman “with a waist no bigger than a tin can” who “[darts] up and down the rows like a hummingbird.” Can’t you see her? Feel her energy? He found words that were tangible metaphors we could connect with right away.
W. Michael Gear describes the rush of adrenaline a man feels on his first buffalo hunt: his “blood boiling bright in his veins.”
Kristin Hannah describes an alcoholic looking regretfully back on his youthful ambitions, “a silly dream, a bit of glass spun in a young man’s hand.”
Can you see how the authors didn’t tell the reader what the characters felt? There are no words like "fear," "rush of adrenaline" or "mid-life regrets." The writers explored the emotion and then found a visceral detail that would make the reader feel it as their own.
Claire, in Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber describes the Scottish highland winds “whipping through her bones.”
Anne River Siddons describes a character in a Maine coastal storm “fighting the cold, salt bile.”
Do you feel it? Do you see it? Experience it as if you were there yourself? The authors have used energetic words to convey not only setting, but mood and conflict as well.
I’ll say it again. Don’t go for the first description that comes to you. Writing that sings is never easy, and it’s almost never the first idea you have. It’s deep and thought through, waited for, contemplated upon. You probably need to make several tries before you reach a description that resonates.
Do you want to convey attraction? Bypass the characters’ looks, their glances, even their dialogue. For language that sings, find a single telling detail or metaphor that conveys who that hero is or what that relationship will become in its soul.
Do you want to convey a place? Sure, eventually you’ll describe what it’s like to see the place. But to get that captivating phrase, close your eyes, put yourself there. What does it feel like to be there?
Only once you get to the marrow, the absolute truth of a relationship, emotion, setting or theme, can you find a vibrant, living phrase to capture it. That’s when it will sing.