Posted in Books, Writing

How to Use Descriptive Language in Your Writing


I don’t often buy books randomly, with no prior knowledge, right there in the bookstore, but such was the case with me and Swamplandia!

I was perusing the local Grassroots Books, a twenty-dollar gift certificate in my hand, looking for a few cheap paperbacks to pick out. But on the right side of the store I found a section of “New Hardbacks” and there in the center was the delightful, mind-boggling cover to Swamplandia! (the paperback cover is fine, too, but nothing like the hardback cover!). I read the jacket — intriguing, saw a fantastic Stephen King quote on the back — excellent. And the book was on sale. I plunked my gift certificate and Swamplandia! down on the counter and looked forward to reading it.

Unfortunately months passed and Swamplandia! kept getting pushed down on my To-Be-Read pile. I looked at it occasionally on my bookshelf, interested, wanting to give a few chapters a try, but I’m a little frustrating with my reading habits: I only read one book at a time, and since I’ve been frequenting the library as of late, all library books have taken precedent over books that I own. One day, however, I decided to take a chance on Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!

Boy, am I glad I did. Swamplandia! is one of the most original and ambitious books I’ve read in a long time. The language is dense and descriptive, and not polarizing, and the characters breathe with life on the page. From the get-go I fell in love with Kiwi character, and I was happy to see him get plenty of material throughout the story, as Russell cuts back and forth between Ava’s journey to find her sister and Kiwi’s rise to popularity after saving a girl’s life.

Around page 50 I wondered where Russell would be taking this story — it started as a short story, after all, and I was doubtful she would be able to sustain my interest for over 300 pages. If the majority of the novel had all been Ava’s story, I might not have enjoyed it as much; even though Ava’s character is told from the first-person, I identified more with the fascinating Kiwi, who got chapters all his own, and whose journey to self-discovery I found particularly interesting.

While I had trouble with some of Ava’s story — Ossie’s insistence on marrying a ghost (complete with that longwinded story about the origin of the ghost, which I found the most tedious section of the book), and the Bird Man and his later rape of the thirteen-year-old — I never tired of reading about Kiwi’s struggles in The World of Darkness, his reaction to celebrity, his confrontations with his father and grandfather. I really enjoyed this novel but particularly loved everything to do with Kiwi and his pursuit of a new life outside of Swamplandia.

I felt privileged to immerse myself in this author’s writing, and I’m definitely going to check out her book of short stories. Swamplandia! was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize, and it’s not difficult to see why. You can take any one paragraph in these 316 pages and marvel at the imaginative prose.

This book, more than any I’ve read in years, has really inspired me to step up my game and try to bring my own words to life better and stronger than I ever had before. While I think I’m good at plotting and character development, I have a lack of imagination when it comes to my descriptive writing. Karen Russell is obviously gifted, and her writing just sparkles with life. Even when she’s writing about something as menial as a shower cap or Kiwi’s bed sheets, she puts a startling picture in our head that goes a long way to our imagining the specific details in the story.

She also showed me that it’s possible to write a novel told from the first person of a character (Ava), but have half the novel’s chapters be told from the perspective of a third-person character (Kiwi). I’d like to implement this perspective mish-mash in an upcoming novel, and I was looking far and wide for a proper example in a critically praised book!

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