You often hope to convey some drama or sense of place in your writing. What if you were able to describe matters in a way that imparted feeling and not just factual information? If you do, your readers won’t feel like they have to slog through your words to get to the end. If you do it very well, readers will understand some of what you mean to say by the manner in which you use the words as well as the words themselves. This skill won’t go unnoticed.
The technical term for matching language with mood and subject matter is performance. The author Henry James is considered a master of this kind of writing, taking readers inside the minds of his subjects by the style of his sentences and choice of words. In your own writing you can do something similar.
The easiest way to think of what I’m describing is to think of the way a broadcaster describes a boxing match. As the action intensifies during an exchange of blows, the play-by-play announcer quickens the pace of description and shortens his sentences. “Oh! That right hand hurt him. Again. Another right. He’s got him on the ropes. A left. A right. Another. And another. He can’t get away.”
The same idea can be applied to all kinds of action, feelings, mood and settings. For example, if you were to describe a small drab rural town where nothing happens and a feeling of dreary monotony has taken hold, you might go at it this way:
“Come summertime, the traffic through the heart of town slowed to a few cars and trucks each afternoon, maybe a tractor hauling a manure spreader, maybe nothing, I don’t know. The heat took a few miles-per-hour off of the usually less-than-frenetic pace. Outside the hardware store a couple of the boys leaned back in their chairs during the hottest part of the day; they stared down into the street, which was empty except for a few parked cars, trying without much luck to think of something to say. You know what I’m saying? Just wasn’t a damn thing to do in that town, not a damn thing worth saying, not a damn drop of gossip worth passing around. Even the flies seemed bored and took their time flitting this way and that.”
Here was a paragraph that took a long time to make a single point, but that is the idea. Filling up empty time with unnecessarily long and repetitive descriptions helps convey the gray monotony of the town where nothing seems to happen on a hot summer day and the emptiness that slows the mind.
“If you were to describe an abrupt, staccato movement, for example, it won’t do to use smooth, legato phrases,” writes Alastair Fowler, the seasoned writer, professor of English and author of the book, How to Write. “The fast movement of phrases connected by and,” he says, “suits one mood; complex syntax-obliging your reader to construe embedded word groups-goes with quite another.”
Any writer should do this more often. “Language is not a conveyor belt trundling a cargo of something else called “the idea” but is itself integral to the idea,” says the journalist Emily Hiestand in her section of a book entitled, Telling True Stories. “Whatever else our words mean to convey, the nature of the language is itself a mighty signal.”
How to Convey Drama and a Sense of Place
*When appropriate for sections of your writing, alter your style and choice of words to suit the mood and meaning of a scene or situation you are describing.
*Take special note of novelists who will use streams-of-consciousness to convey what is going on inside a character’s mind. Authors from Ernest Hemingway to Toni Morrison do it.
*Avoid writing in exactly the same way about everything; be flexible.
*Be sensitive to the rhythm of sentences.
*Practice by writing a three-paragraph word equivalent of chamber music and then practice by writing a three-paragraph word equivalent of jazz.