Banish Stick-Figure Writing: How Concrete Sensory Details Make All the Difference in Fiction

Thin, generic description is the literary equivalent of drawing with stick figures. That’s a problem—because your reader’s imagination will only engage if it’s convinced what’s happening is real. And if their imagination won’t engage, their emotions won’t engage, and they’ll puts the book down and find something fun to do.

So how do you flesh your stick figures out?

In 1979, a revolutionary book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain pinpointed why so many adults and older children can’t draw. It’s because they aren’t drawing what they see—they’re drawing what they know.

In other words, they’re drawing a category, rather than the thing itself.

I “know” a face is oval and has two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, so that’s what I draw. Then I’m surprised that it looks like a stick figure, not a human face. In reality, depending on the way a face is angled and the way the light falls across it, a real face may not be oval, may not have two (visible) eyes, may have only part of a nose, etc.

I “know” a tree has a thick trunk and at the top some branches and leaves—so I draw a stick-figure tree instead of the wild living thing flinging out arms and fingers in front of me.

The same thing can happen in writing. “A dog stood under a tree. A girl ran past.”  But “dog,” “tree,” and “girl” aren’t descriptions; they’re labels for abstract concepts. Was it a tiny mutt or a graceful Great Dane? An aspen or a cottonwood? A 6-year-old Latina or a willowy white teenager?

A few fleshier alternatives:

  • A twenty-foot cottonwood, heart-shaped leaves turning lazily in the breeze
  • A mutt with a smashed-in boxer’s face and lolling tongue
  • A small girl with tangled dark hair, wiping her nose on a dirty coat sleeve as she runs past.

Now a little of this kind of description goes a long way. Be judicious: you don’t want to force-feed your reader a whole box of chocolates. If I were editing myself here, I’d decide which was the most important element for the reader to focus on. Let’s say it was the dog:

“The mutt stood under a tall cottonwood. He turned his smashed-in boxer’s face, tongue lolling, to watch a small, dark-haired girl run past. He did not give chase.”

We’re humans, we live in bodies. That means our minds won’t believe, our imaginations won’t be convinced, without plenty of concrete sensory details. Banish the stick figure. Make your writing juicy with life, and allow the reader to fall in love with your book.