About thirty years ago, in an “It’s time to write the Great American Autobiography” frenzy, I wrote several pages about my life. Why I thought anyone would be interested in it is still beyond me, but there you have it.
I made the mistake of showing it to an older friend of mine, famous for her honesty, and she could barely conceal her discomfort. In fact, she was speechless. She merely pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows.
Humiliation aside, I knew her silent reaction was right on target. I had committed just about every description mistake ever. My prose was full of drama, it was a poor imitation of a real author, and it lacked color and originality.
I still blush when I think of it.
We all make writing faux pas. In this post I will concentrate on potential description mistakes and how to fix them up.
The drama queen/king
Most of us have felt at one time or another that to describe means to be dramatic. Check this out:
She slithered into the room, gloriously shimmering from head to toe. Every man in the room, from the short and ugly to the tall and handsome, cast his eyes on the dazzling figure she cut. As Percival sipped his cold martini, its tang burning the roof of his mouth, his sea-blue eyes watched her closely. As Chloe sashayed past him, the scent of her Chanel No. 5 wafted into his nostrils, awakening memories of their magical time together.
I better stop here; this is making me nauseous.
Okay, other than the fact that this is the worst piece of prose I’ve ever written in my life – but do you think I could get a job writing for Harlequin Romances? – I have to ask you something: are martinis tangy?
This overly dramatic paragraph is not only bad, it’s full of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, no-no’s I’ve harped on in several posts. Moreover, do we really care that Percival’s mouth is burning? I know I don’t. And I really don’t want to hear about his nostrils.
Yes, you need descriptive words to convey time, place, and mood, but if the description is not necessary to the plot or thesis, don’t go there.
Also, check your adjectives and adverbs (if you must use them) for accuracy. I personally wouldn’t want to see a woman slithering into a room; what is she, a snake? Put yourself in the mind of your reader. Your descriptive words are going to evoke feelings in him or her; which do you want him or her to experience? Once you figure that out, find words that will do the job.
This type tries to imitate a famous author. While I encourage you to read many and varied authors – and I even suggest you write out particularly excellent descriptions in longhand – when it’s time to do your own writing you need to take lessons from the greats while adding your own special style.
Here’s a parody of Ernest Hemingway, who was famous for his bare minimum of description:
The mountain stood naked in the early-morning sun. Birds flew from their aeries, beginning a new day of scavenging. The man shrugged his day pack onto his shoulders, beginning the ascent. The smell of last night’s campfire emanated from his clothes, which he had slept in. He walked on the path toward his destiny.
Very nice – certainly better than the first example – but nothing really happened. Again, where in this paragraph is the plot being moved forward? And why does it sound like a commercial for Marlboro Man?
The truth of the matter is that the above paragraph is a pretty good example of Tell. The problem is that it’s too self-conscious. The writer seems to be looking over his or her shoulder, sacrificing clarity and purpose on the altar of cheap Hemingway leftovers.
As a side issue, notice the rhythm of the sentences; they are almost all the same: subject-verb-prepositional phrase-comma-participle phrase. I am a fan of aural writing, meaning that the prose must sound right to my ear. Therefore, when I’m reading over what I wrote (BTW, I do read everything over three or four times, and I recommend this for everyone), I make sure to vary the rhythm of the sentences, their length, and their syntax.
Many of us use a lot of “to be or not to be” words, which generally doesn’t contribute to original, thought-provoking prose.
While it’s fine to Tell sometimes, we should all be wary of too many “to be” words – even when Telling, you can use other verbs. What do you think of this one?
The book was on the floor, and Martine was picking it up when Jean Claude walked into the room. He was wearing brown corduroy trousers and a black shirt. The rest of the books were on the shelves according to color. Jean Claude snorted when he saw them.
Okay, so I’m not Shakespeare. But hopefully I’ve made my point.
We can dress this description up with a few choice verbs and judiciously placed adjectives and/or adverbs:
The book lay on the floor, and Martine bent to pick it up as Jean Claude entered, wearing brown corduroy trousers and a black shirt that set off his emerald-green eyes. The rest of the books were placed in rows on the shelves, uncannily according to color. Jean Claude took all this in, his eyes flickering with amusement and the dimple on his cheek deepening.
As I’ve said both here and here, Tell is usually cause and Show is generally effect. The first two sentences are more Tell, as they give us information without the emotional investment. The last sentence is Show, as the flicker of amusement and the deepening dimple
- was caused by the wonky placement of the books on the shelves and
- demonstrates how he experienced the vision of the books.
Embarrassing metaphors and similes
While using metaphors and similes can add spice to your writing, it’s important not be dramatic and not to use hackneyed phrases and cliche.
- She’s as cheery as sunshine.
- They’re like two peas in a pod.
- Jane is to Joan as black is to white.
- The boxing match was the mother of all fights.
It helps to close your eyes and concentrate on what you are really trying to say. Images will come to mind, helping you find the perfect comparison and zero in on the meaning and mood you want to convey to your readers. Check out the magnificent metaphors of J.K. Rowling, from her adult novel, The Casual Vacancy:
- Lexie was jabbering about school; a machine-gun torrent of information.
- Barry’s small brown eyes [were] robin bright.
- A black suit was hanging in dry cleaner’s polythene in his bedroom, like an unwelcome guest.
- Sometimes Kay counted over the things that he had not said or done, like a miser looking through IOUs.
A closing thought
I’ll end this post with something I hope you will take to heart:
Using description to your and your readers’ advantage is much more important than labeling your sentences Show or Tell.
There is a fine line between Show and Tell. Decide whether you want to report events or have your characters experience them, and go to it.
The pre-sale for my online course, Wake Up Your Prose: Description Unpacked, continues. No commitment is necessary; just get yourself on the waiting list, and if you decide to purchase the course you’ll get a bonus others won’t get. It will involve personal writing feedback from me. Here’s the link to get yourself on that waiting list.
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