How to describe what you really see

by Haydn Middleton

Haydn Middleton edited books for Oxford University Press before becoming a full-time writer. (Haydn’s Goodreads page shows a selection of his titles.) He has published seven novels for adults and an eighth is forthcoming in October 2018.

Six or seven years ago, while living on the Devon coast, I signed up for a weekly life-drawing class. Life drawing? A semi-circle of quietly apologetic people, mostly retired, sitting in a chilly studio and trying to render in charcoal a naked person on a plinth who is holding a pose for up to three hours in front of them.

We students did our best not to make the models look too deformed. On top of getting cramp and goosebumps for their paltry appearance fees, that would have been too much.

None of us was ever going to be the next David Hockney. But I enjoyed the classes very much, and I learned a great deal – not just about the rudiments of drawing, but also – unexpectedly – about how to write descriptively.

This was because the tutor, a proper artist with the credentials to prove it, turned out to be an inspirational woman. She talked almost incessantly as she circled the room, looking at our emerging studies, offering individual tips, and making broader points to the whole company.

Her relentless message was that we should draw what we were seeing, and not what we assumed to be there.

That sounds so obvious, but it isn’t. We all think we know exactly what a human face looks like, or even the usually less visible parts of a human figure. But when we peer that bit closer, at the bidding of someone who has made a life’s mission out of really looking, all sorts of surprises can be in store.

Shadows Like to Meet Each Other

The tutor would make us start each sketch by drawing a “negative space”, like the triangular gap between the model’s hand-on-hip arm and the side of his torso. Such a space is easier to see and draw in proportion than other, over-familiar body shapes. “Negative spaces are good”, she often said. (At least for me, she had a memorable way with words.) “See how in this pose the shoulder surges into the upper arm,” she would say, with a mixture of awe and delight at yet another technical masterstroke from the designer of mankind.

Another of her catchphrases was “shadows like to meet each other”. She would show us what she meant by conjuring up a perfectly plausible shoulder purely by hatching on a scrap of sugar paper the different levels of shadow cast by the musculature of the model. Just watching her pencil’s fluid moves could be spellbinding. And then, seconds later, she’d magically produced a rendering of the shoulder I was seeing before me, not the one I’d imagined to be there.

Descriptive writing: Seeing with a Stranger’s Eyes

I no longer do any drawing, even just by myself at home. But I often think about that tutor’s approach to her art, and I’ve tried to incorporate it into my own approach to writing.

I also use it when tutoring Flying Start, my online creative-writing beginners course for Jericho Writers, and it has yielded some fruitful and interesting results. For one exercise, I ask the students to write a couple of paragraphs describing the physical appearance of someone they know very well (a parent, a lover, a boss) but as if they are seeing them for the very first time.

You can try it for yourselves. I’m not talking about the person in question’s personality, his hobbies, her colourful life-history. (Although it intrigues me how often the students go off-message and do put in this sort of information. It’s almost as if they want to avoid, at any cost, reporting back on what is actually out there in the public domain.) Just try to describe, as straightforwardly as you can, exactly what it is you are seeing when this person presents him or herself in front of you, as if you have never seen them before.

You may like to work from a photograph rather than just memory. That can help. It can also help if you describe them in the midst of doing something, not perched up on a plinth like that model with the goosebumps. (An awful lot can be communicated by describing how a person performs even the simplest action.) I can’t guarantee that you will be surprised by what you find, but you will almost certainly discover that you are using less off-the-peg language in trying to articulate how her eyes are located not at the top of her face but closer to half way down, or his left leg seems to drag just a little as he walks.

Descriptions: Let’s Get (More) Physical

By using your eyes, then conveying precisely what you see, my contention is that your writing will become fresher, customised to the task in hand. And when it comes to character-drawing in your fiction, don’t be afraid to orientate your readers with a fair amount of closely-observed physical description.

In many of the novel scripts I read for Jericho Writers (see more about our editorial work here), their authors tend to say much more about what a character is like, rather than what he is, or how she acts. That can be interesting. But often I find myself feeling that while I’ve been fully apprised of the insides of that character’s head, what I’d really like to know is how does she stir her tea and possibly blow on it before she drinks it? Or how does that other character comport himself while the slightly sluggish lady assistant in the village shop serves four people in the queue ahead of him?

In my own next novel, The Ballad of Syd & Morgan, due to be published October 2018, I never go inside the head of either of my main characters. All the information about them has to be gathered from what they say and – perhaps more crucially – from how they perform even the smallest actions. I found it refreshing not to have to keep relating thought-processes. I certainly found I had to use more precise language than I usually do in trying to bring them alive on the page, while subliminally that life-class tutor was forever whispering in my ear, “negative spaces are good,” “shadows like to meet each other”.

Try it yourself. Look at things from this fresh perspective. It may work wonders.

Haydn Middleton is a published author and editor at Jericho Writers. Find out more about Haydn.

The idea generator

Get better ideas faster, with this simple guide.