Have you even heard the term “earworm?” If not, you’ve experienced it: a song that wriggles its way into your head and makes a home there, unwilling to leave. Like Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega:
It’s one of those songs that just won’t let go. It’s catchy, pithy, and expressive. But what does it have to do with writing?
I was listening to this song the other day, and it struck me that it’s the perfect example of evocative description. I won’t reprint the lyrics here, but you can find them online. I can’t even think of a worthy sample to give here, because anything taken out of the context of the whole is meaningless. Take a look, I’ll wait.
The song seems nonsensical: just a person narrating their (rather dull) day. Until you get to the end of the song, and you realize that she’s sitting in a diner alone because she’s no longer with her significant other. There’s no indication why they broke up, who left who, if infidelity or death was involved–just that she’s lonely, and misses him. Then the rest of the song makes sense: she hasn’t been narrating her boring day as much as setting the scene for how she’s feeling. Despite not being very long or eventful, the song is enormously effective.
This works because Vega gives you no indication of the plot until the last verses–and even then, there are so many open questions. The whole song is made up of little details that seem so inconsequential it’s easy to gloss over them. But in looking back on them, they set the tone beautifully, and in a better way than simply telling the listener what’s happening.
When writing fiction, evocative description is the way to go. It’s so much more effective than telling the reader point blank that your character is feeling sad or happy or hungry. It’s economical too: Vega’s character has a complex emotional state that’s expressed in just over 200 words. Even better, she does this without having the character speak, or even really do anything beyond putting cream into her coffee. As a writer, you want to make sure you pull the reader into your story, to make them sympathize with your characters. You can do this by handing it to the reader on a silver platter–but that’s boring, and it’s not respectful to a reader who’s able to figure things out for themselves.
Instead, by placing little details in seemingly innocuous places, you create an emotional tapestry that pulls the reader in without them even realizing it. The continuous rain, the woman who doesn’t know she’s being watched as she hikes her skirt, the man behind the counter who doesn’t pay attention to his customer–these are all external indications of how Vega’s character is feeling. They’re metaphors, and very effective ones. And all without the character so much as lifting a finger.
The added benefit here is that you get to create your world in relation to the characters. Vega’s world seems damp, murky, and unfriendly–a perfect compliment to her character’s emotional state. But the same world, as described, can be used to reflect other characters. Maybe the woman hitching her skirt is meeting a lover for a romantic kiss in the rain. Maybe the man behind the counter is inattentive because he’s secretly in love with the woman with the umbrella. When other characters react differently to the world you’re creating, you’re telling the reader even more about them. Again, without those characters doing much of anything.
Here’s an example from the opening of my upcoming release, Court of Sand:
Lamplight flickered, and shadows danced on the wall. Verdant silence filled the halls, and the only movement was the opening of the door to the Empress’s chambers. A dark form slipped out and closed the door behind him with a soft click; Alkut stopped for a moment, listening. Content that he was alone, he sneaked quietly away. He did not notice her son, Ohmel, General of the Court, watching him.
I think the passage needs some tightening up, but you see what I’ve done here. I could have written bluntly that Alkut was sneaking out of the Empress’ chambers while Ohmel looked on, perhaps even having Ohmel whispering his intent to punish Alkut for the transgression. I could have gone into great detail about how Alkut is having an affair with the newly widowed Empress, that there’s already an underlying tension between him and Ohmel, and that the Empress is an unwitting pawn in a larger plan. But all of that boils down to exposition, and it’s dull. The few lines above tell much the same story, with (I think) a bit more flare. Evocative writing gives a whole new dimension to your work and your characters.
And, frankly, it’s more fun for the writer too.