Sally walked down the sidewalk and looked up at the sky. She had just broken up with her boyfriend.
Pretty flat, no? The first response to such a flat line is “add more description.” Okay, sure, I can add more description to later paragraphs, but I need to show that she’s walking down the sidewalk, and later on in the story, the sky becomes important. So I don't want to burry those key pieces of information in lots more description. How can I turn this flat line into something critics will not comment on?
Description and emotion aren’t limited to long, rather boring, chunks of monologue. You can just add one or two words to make your prose shine, depending on the mood you want to create.
Let’s rewrite the above, just adding in a few words to show Sally is depressed. (Added words are in bold)
Sally walked down the empty sidewalk. She bit her lip and looked up at the gray sky. She had just broken up with her boyfriend.
Isn’t that better? The words “empty” and “gray” give more of a setting (No, it’s not cheating to have the weather display character moods!) and the phrase “she bit her lip” shows, again, that she’s not too happy with everything. And I didn’t change a single word in the original example.
Let’s rewrite this again, only showing Sally is happy that she broke up with her boyfriend.
Sally walked down the busy sidewalk and looked up at the cloud-free sky. She smiled and looked at the people around her. She had just broken up with her boyfriend.
That example shows a completely different setting. This sidewalk is full of people, and everything is sunny. Yes, I added in a whole sentence, but the original example is still there, unaltered.
All I did was use choice words (and some sentences) to make the flat prose come to life. I didn’t touch a single word from the original sentence. Even the capitalized letters stayed the same!
Okay, so that’s showing emotion with little bits of description. But what if you want to show the same scene in two different lights? Maybe to show the change in your character throughout the course of the work. Let’s take a sunny day and see how it came be changed with a few words.
And, since changing weather description to show emotion is a bit harder, there shall be no original example to alter.
The sun shone down on Barkly Street, making the storefronts sparkle. It warmed the grass and made rainbows in the sprinkler’s mist.
Now there's a nice, happy setting. “Sparkle,” “warmed,” “shone” and the mention of rainbows show a nice, happy tone.
To show the same scene again, with different words.
The sun blazed down on Barkly Street, washing out the colours in the storefronts. It scorched the grass and dried up the sprinkler’s mist before it even had a chance to hit the ground.
Notice how the same things are mentioned. The street, the storefronts, the grass and the sprinkler are in both examples. The only thing that changed was the description of the sun. The storefronts no longer sparkle, the colours are washed out from the light. The grass is scorched, not warmed, and the sprinkler’s mist doesn’t even have a chance to hit the ground! This would be a good scene to show hopelessness, or that something is barren. Be it the world, or the character’s life.
You could also apply this technique to the above examples about Sally and her boyfriend. You could turn either line into its opposite emotion just by using a few key words to show her mood. An empty sidewalk now becomes a place she can be free, and a busy one is too crowded and full of people who keep bumping into her.
By doing that, you add a third layer into descriptions: the character's preference. If they're ones to like a grey sky, that would be happy for them. It takes a bit more work to actually make the prose shine and to have readers understand, but that little bit of extra work really brings the character off the page and immerses readers into the character's world, thought process, and emotions. Once you've done this, readers start to know and love the character as much as you do, because they can become the character. You've given them all the information they need to do so.
Choice words to describe things are the key to making prose come to life. By adding adjectives, adverbs and little character details, you can reinforce the character’s feelings, or be able to show the character’s feelings without mentioning them at all. Pick your words carefully when describing things, and emotion is much easier to show the reader.