When you think of “word painting” you might think of imagery, but this term actually originates in music theory. Simply described, it is when the music of a song mimics its lyrics. Here’s a helpful Wikipedia article about the history of word painting if you’d like to learn more.
But why am I talking about this on a writing blog? Good question. The art forms of music and writing share this technique of word painting. In writing it’s when the sound or rhythm of words reflects the action being described.
But let’s back up to where word painting began. A famous example in music is the note progression in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. The notes between “some” and “where” go way up high like the lyrics say. You can hear the lyric here.
You probably hear examples of word painting every day in pop music. A singer could sing the word “high” on a high note or “low” on a low note. Key changes are often symbolic of a change in emotion by the singer.
Or maybe you’ve heard Billie Eilish’s “everything i wanted.” When she sings “underwater” there’s a watery or muffled effect applied to the word. More recently, in “Deja Vu” by Olivia Rodrigo we hear the phrase “I love you” whispered after “now I bet you even tell her how you love her.”
Word painting enhances elements and themes of music, and the same can be said for prose and poetry. I will admit, it is a subtle technique in writing but can really enhance a reading experience for me. Every time I notice word painting in a book or poem, I share a conspiratorial glance with the author that says “I see what you did there.”
Commonly, word painting in poetry is done through alliteration, rhythm, or repetition, though other techniques are possible. Let’s analyze a stanza of “The Lady of Shallot” by Lord Tennyson. I will admit that I am biased because this is my favorite poem.
In “The Lady of Shallot” the titular character is locked away in a tower above Camelot. And in Part III of this lengthy poem, the lady rises after seeing Sir Lancelot in the field below.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro' the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look'd down to Camelot.
The consistent rhythm in the second line shows the pacing of the character literally and aurally. Read it aloud to hear for yourself. Beginning each phrase with “she” quickens the reading speed and makes us feel her anxiety and rush. The break in rhyme scheme also reflects that she is now looking in a different direction.
For a much more modern example, here’s a line from Kwame Davis’ poem “Peach Picking”
of unremarkable land, no surprises. She lifts the tarp
and gathers gently the bruised peaches, their water
There’s a stanza break in between these lines. There aren’t hard consonants, showing the woman’s gentleness. Through the enjambment — a line that continues without punctuation into the next — the pause makes me feel the woman lifting the tarp. There’s a lift in tone at the end of the line. The poem does not pause at the end, it feels like a memory being described.
I also want to mention shape poems as an obvious example of word painting. These types of poems are poems that are in the shape of what they describe. Check Pinterest for more inspiration, but an example looks like this:
In the poem, the narrator is getting a baby sister, and the poem is in the shape of a baby.
In my opinion, prose is where this technique is the most subtle. I’ve written an example sentence to start with.
She picked each stray strand from the pink spool of stiff yarn, smoothing out its texture.
This sentence uses consonance to mimic the action of the character. Consonance is when there is a purposeful repetition of consonants. The repetitive use of the “s” sound reminds us of someone picking at a spool of yarn. Ending the sentence with “texture” stops the consonance and shows us that the character has finished her action.
The most seamless example of word painting in prose — if done well — is when the structure of a sentence reflects the emotion of a character. Here’s an example:
Betty braced herself, and the storm that had been building ever since Betty was seventeen, ever since she had first stepped into this new life, into the gross world of matrimony for which she had been groomed and yet been so, so unprepared for, took in a whoosh of air and wheezed out rain in a gray veil.
This type of sentence is called a gradual or periodic sentence. Pieces of the sentence stack on each other to create tension and show the building of the storm. In the middle section, we feel the tension as Betty braces herself at a threshold. Tension is at work here to add to the actions of the building storm and Betty’s step into it.
So why use word painting? Honestly, I think it’s cool. When the sound of words reflects their meaning, I feel absorbed into writing. It grabs my attention. Have you ever played a video game that goes the extra mile with its design or “flavor”? I get the same feeling when I experience word painting in music and writing.
I hope this article has broadened your eyes a bit to see the finer details of alliteration, sentence structure, and other flourishes in writing. A word of caution if you are planning on integrating this cool technique: use it sparingly. A little goes a long way.
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.