Layer Details Like a Police Sketch Artist

Police Sketch Artist

Boise, Idaho, Police Sketch Artist Tonya Newberry

Part 2 of 3: Add Detail to Your Descriptions

As promised, here is Part 2 of our powwow on adding detail to your descriptions. In Part 1, we discussed the importance of using detailed sensory images, motion verbs, and concrete nouns to evoke a reader’s emotions.

One Detail at a Time

Think of your story as a blank slate to which you are adding details one at a time. It’s similar to the way a police sketch artist sits down with a crime victim and together they try to render the face of the attacker. The artist takes out pad and paper (or computer, nowadays!) and the subject describes the shape of the villain’s face and the size, shape, and color of his eyes. Next, she gives details about the size and shape of the rogue’s nose, mouth, eyebrows, and ears, and whether he had any facial hair or scars or identifying marks on his skin. Finally, the victim describes the criminal’s hair color, length, and style. At each step during the process, the artist adds another layer to his drawing until the likeness appears just as the crime victim remembers her attacker.

This is what you’ll do with your description—add layers one at a time until the description is just as you picture your character or scene.

Detail is More Than Just Adjectives and Adverbs

Sometimes inexperienced writers think adding detail means sprinkling in lots of adjectives and adverbs. However, rather than enrich your descriptions, these mislead and cloud. For example, using a vague adjective like wonderful (“She had a wonderful day”) leaves your reader unable to focus on any particular image. Instead, show your character winning an award, giving birth to her first child, or being offered that dream job. Targeting such specific actions allows the reader to imagine herself in the character’s place. Similarly, in the sentence, “He walked quickly across the stage” the adverb quickly is verbal diarrhea that is better replaced with a more specific verb—strode. Again, the reader can more easily picture himself performing the definite action.

So if you can’t sprinkle your story with adjectives and adverbs, how can you add detail? Layer descriptions with adjective and adverb phrases and clauses. And noun phrases and clauses. And prepositional phrases and verbals. Don’t worry. You already know what these are. Remember my post on how to vary your sentence beginnings and structures? You can add detail to sentences using those same forms:

Appositive/noun/noun phrase or clause

Verb/verb phrase or clause

Adjective phrase or clause

Adverb phrase or clause

Prepositional phrase

Appositives Rename Nouns; Noun Phrases Act as Nouns

An appositive renames or describes a noun. In “Jane, my sister, will visit next month,” my sister is an appositive that tells the reader who Jane is. To remember what an appositive is, think, “I’m positive Jane is my sister.” An appositive can be a single word, a phrase, or a clause.

Let’s begin with the basic sentence, “My grandfather whistles in the garage.” Now we’ll add appositives to restate the nouns, building detail.

  • My grandfather, Bernard, a tall Irishman with white hair and a hearty laugh, whistles in the garage, a workshop with tools lining the block walls painted with the smell of sawdust.

You can also layer noun phrases. A noun phrase is a group of words that acts like a noun, becoming a person, place, or thing in a sentence. In “All that I have could be gone tomorrow,” all that I have acts as a noun, a thing. We can string together three more noun phrases to add detail:

  • All that I haveyour hand in mine, our chairs on the porch, the dog asleep at our feet—could be gone tomorrow.

Gerunds and Participles and Infinitives, Oh My!

Verb details generally take the form of:

  • participles (active verbs ending in “ed” or “ing”)
  • gerunds (nouns ending in “ing”)
  • infinitives (to + a verb)

Let’s begin with the basic sentence, “She tells the children stories,” and add a participle and an infinitive:

  • Estranged from her family, she tells the children stories to keep her connected to Tuscany.

Let’s begin with the basic sentence, “The dog lies on the rug,” and add a gerund and a participle:

  • Panting dissipates the dog’s anxiety as he lies on the rug, awaiting his master’s arrival.

Let’s Look at Our Sketch

Now let’s see some appositives, noun phrases, and verbals in action. Let’s begin with the basic sentence, “Hope walked slowly to the plane, wondering what other indignities awaited,” and add various noun and verb phrase details (So it’s easier to track changes, I’ll add/change only one or two phrases in each line, keeping the rest intact. By the last line, we’ll have a richly detailed sentence.):

  • Taking her suitcase from the agent, Hope walked slowly to the plane, wondering what other indignities awaited.
  • Snatching her suitcase from the customs agent who had rifled through it, Hope walked slowly to the plane, wondering what other indignities awaited.
  • Snatching her now-dented suitcase from the customs agent who had rifled through it and taken her nail scissors and shampoo, Hope slogged to the puddle-jumper, wondering what other indignities awaited.
  • Snatching her now-dented suitcase from the customs agent who had rifled through it and taken her nail scissors and shampoo, Hope trudged to the puddle-jumper warming up on the tarmac, wondering what other dangers and indignities awaited her on this mission of mercy.
  • Hope, the Doctors Without Borders recruit, snatched her now-dented suitcase from the customs agent who had rifled through it and taken her nail scissors and shampoo. As she trudged to the puddle-jumper warming up on the tarmac she wondered what other dangers and indignities awaited her on this mission of mercy.

We haven’t even used adjective or adverb phrases yet, and look at the rich detail we’ve added to our sentences!

Next time: Adjective, adverb, and prepositional phrases layered as details.

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