Doing Description Wrong

Description. There’s an art to it. Writers miss it when they fumble the juggle between showing and telling, and there’s nothing worse than an overeager wordsmith slathering on words like blobs of paint to make for a Pollockian tapestry.

Description doesn’t quite work that way. You’re telling a story. Don’t forget that part.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Could you give me a few pointers on my descriptive paragraph?

“Caked mud gripped the desolate path. The faceless sky breathed a white empty fire. Nocturnal whispers retreated from the land like reverse rays of beaming sun. Rocks rose with purple resilience amid the bleak soil. Lonely black trees danced solitary in a faint breeze. A weary shadow heralded the traveler’s coming.”

—Caleb Hilton, Bothell, WA

I’ll give you one pointer: start over.

This isn’t describing anything. These are wasted words slapping into dull thuds, lacking any sort of verve in sentence structure. You’ve colored with shimmering paints, muddying the canvas with unclear blobs and no definition.

Description isn’t how many fancy words you string together, or how many words you can check off from your “Thesaurus Rex of Awesome.”

I’d only keep the last sentence, if that. Tell your story first. Make something move. Draw those lines, color within them as you go.

Description without meaning is an empty art. When things “move,” your reader will fill in the gaps, letting you interject to fill in the rest. I can look at an Epic Fantasy Picture Book if I want scenery. But you’re a writer. Give me a story worth describing. We’ll get there.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

Less is More: Describing Characters

You’re in the business of writing to write stuff, tell stories, and do it well. You take great care (I would hope) to paint lightly, letting this thing called “imagination” fill in the rest.

And then you screw it up by slapping down all the details, leaving the reader with no work to do.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

How do I describe my characters the right way? Is there a way of doing too much? Too little? Where’s the happy of happiest mediums? 

—Ramona O’Neal, Blue Mound, Tex.

I’d like to say that there is no “right way,” only many “wrong ways.” But that sounds more amusing than it is true.

Just to make this easier, here are some of the wrong ways of going about it.

Beginning with description 

A rookie mistake. A bad writer mistake. Unless you write to dumb readers, they will figure this character out.

Using a mirror

I. Will. Not. Read. Your. Book. If. A. Mirror. Is. Used. To. Describe. Your. Character. This is the cheapest trick of cheap tricks.

Going “Whole Hog”

Including every single detail just tells your reader, “Hey, I don’t trust you to get this right. Let me do all the work. You just buy my crap, follow my posts, and eat the circus peanuts I toss you from my blog, ok?”

Using description as a plot point

That’s also a cheap trick, unless this is The Rhinoceros Man, Vol. 2 or whatever.

Character description is over-rated. Don’t underestimate your reader’s imagination. Give them something to work with, then let them take the rest.

Heck, while you’re at it: weave it into the story. Work smarter.

“He itched his pug nose.”

“She plucked a stray hair, letting the red strand fall to the sand.”

“He hiked up his frayed cargo shorts and wiped the sweat from his unibrow.”

“The punches darkened his once blue eyes into stinging maroons.”

“Her spindly hand stung from slapping his foetid jowls.”

“His paunch threatened to burst through his designer shirt as he shifted his bulk toward me. He’s more substance than style, even if he labored for the opposite.”

Swift tells. Strong brushstrokes. Strategic nuance. Get the painting started. The joy of reading is filling in some of that detail yourself. Don’t cheat your reader.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).