Show don't tell is what people say poet advise you to do, but how can you say that a land is desolate without using the word desolate, lonely or any synonym? Is there a way to do this?
What kind of land is it?
No man is an island, and no desolation is empty.
The moon will be stark black sky against endless grainy grey wastes of fine dust and rock.
Deserts will be hot and dry, with blowing sand and dead brush, dried up river beds and alkali lakes.
A steppe would be open, with grass matted down from perpetual winds.
The artic would be bitterly cold, with permafrost dotted by tiny plants poking through snow.
Radioactive wastelands will be littered with trash and debris, dead plants, animals and bones.
Volcanic wastes will be littered with pumice and cinders, black rock and fissures seeping acrid fumes.
The land of Mordor would be all fire and smoke, rock and ash, filth left by orcs and lava flows from mount Doom.
Nothing is truly desolate, except the recesses of the human heart.
Let’s start with ‘Water, Water, Everywhere, nor any drop to drink.’ from the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
It provides some simple essential facts — surrounded by water — followed by something a little bit surprising and counter intuitive — that the water is undrinkable. Our imagination searches for reasonable reasons to explain this, and we intuit some reactions from the language since it communicates that this absence of water is a problem — otherwise why mention it.
Spoilers ... this is a classic line describing a sailor being lost at sea expressed from that sailor’s POV and communicates the sense of danger or peril the sailor faces and suggests the need to slake their thirst, which is frustrated by the environment.
For your desolate land, you can work backwards — enumerate the physical qualities of the place you want to describe — hot, dry, barren, sandy, cloudless, or Mars like.
Then, select your POV. Is this the person experiencing it? Or is this someone finding the bones of someone who died there? Or is this some imagining someone there, who might be themselves at some point in the future or was the, in the past?
Then, identify the experience the person has in that place, make sure to consider physiological and emotional experiences and reactions or consequences of those experiences.
Once you’ve assembled your properties of the landscape, your POV, and the experiences imagined from that environment you start writing
e.g. “Mars is not a place to raise your kids. In fact, its cold as hell.” (misquoting since I don’t have Sir Elton’s permission to reproduce his lyrics.)
“Booze, pills, needles, awash in the unwashed and unwanted, broken bottles slice my feet, but not my wrists, adrift and alone in a world too full of itself with no room for me”
A trail of armor ends in a drift of bones, crushed by teeth, marrow licked clean, etched smooth by sand
I know little about poetry, but your question reminded me of Sheep in Fog, a poem by Sylvia Plath. I think her description of desolateness works because of several techniques:
- She uses very few words, so that you can actually hear how quiet the hills are.
- The opening line immediately paints a slow, still landscape.
- She describes very singular details: the trail of smoke from a train, a single flower. It's almost as if this flower stands out very clearly, because everything else is so uniform and lonely.
I hope this helps!
Sheep in Fog, by Sylvia Plath (no copyright intended)
The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.
The train leaves a line of breath.
Horse the colour of rust,
Hooves, dolorous bells -
All morning the
Morning has been blackening,
A flower left out.
My bones hold a stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart.
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.