Painting a Picture with Words

A common phrase used when speaking about writing, “paint a picture with words” is one of those familiar axioms that holds almost no meaning.

When told to paint a picture with words, some authors can get frustrated – and I don’t blame them. It’s advice about as useless as ‘get good’. Okay, thanks. How?

The problem lies in the format of the advice itself: it’s wrong. Yes, I just went there. You should not be painting a picture with your words. Why? Because a painting is just one of the senses. And the best writing pulls you into the world of the book, immerses you in the story and lore and characters. The best way to do that is to make this world as real as possible.

Now, there is an argument that the painting a picture advice is just a metaphor, since you can’t actually paint with words. Yes, fine. But it still leads you to focus on sight. What about scent? Or touch? What about smell? And yes, taste is important, too. I read a story once, where the main character is being told off by his boss. He’s got a cup of coffee in his hands while this conversation is going on. The author focused on the dialogue, on the way the main character was feeling, on the setting and movements, all those very important things that should not be ignored. But there were a few things that were added that made this scene stick with me ten years later, when I cannot remember the name of the book or the author. They talked about the coffee cup.

The main character felt shame, and while he was listening to his boss rightly chastise him over his actions, he pressed his fingers to the hot ceramic of his cup and felt the slight burn. When she asked him what he had to say for himself, he lifted the cup to his lips and took a sip, focusing for one brief moment on the bitter taste of coffee without sugar, the heat of it in his mouth and down his throat, the smell in his nose. He took just a few seconds to collect himself before answering. It was a very powerful moment for me, because I was able to connect with the main character in a way I’d rarely done before, simply because he took a sip of coffee. It was more than just the main character taking a fortifying sip of coffee – it was a sliver of a moment in which I could recognize the humanity of this person. All because the author described the scent, taste, and feel of this cup of coffee.

These three senses are most often ignored by authors, but the ones who take the time to incorporate them into their stories find them richer and more believable for it.