Describe ALL the Things!

Every adjective needs a noun, but not every noun needs an adjective. Or something. It is indeed not a truth universally acknowledged that a powerful noun, object, thing is in need of some equally powerful, poignant, cheesy modifier.

We’re all guilty.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Dear Writing All Wrong:

I know that you sometimes review writing, and you’re pribably [sic] going to make fun of me for it. That’s OK though, because I don’t think you get a lot of emails because people think you’re too mean. That’s also OK, because you’ll probably point out something I should be working on anyway. Anyway, here’s the first couple of chapters of my book, Unfinished Dawn.

[CHAPTERS REDACTED] (sorry.)

—Jeremy Stark, Westerville, Ohio.

You’re absolutely right. I’ll make fun of you. I am too mean. I don’t get a lot of email. And I’ll point out things you should be working on anyway. Like adjectives and modifiers.

“coiled, razor-sharp, Concertina wire” — Glad you cleared up the confusion here, since Concertina wire comes in a “fluffy bunny” variety.

“smoldering remains and scattered ruins” — Other than ‘and,’ the rest of these words can go.

“He peered grimly through the charcoal ichor of foglike black ephemera.” — This sounds like what a chimney sweep would write about himself to make his work seem interesting.

“He was heavily armed with an AA-12 Automatic shotgun, a potent pair of Glock G26 9mm subcompact pistols, M67 fragmentations grenades strung together like cloves of garlic on his sash, and a custom-designed IMI Tavor TAR-21 assault rifle.” — Too many numbers, clumsy mixed metaphors, weak modifiers (“custom-designed?”).  Are you writing gun-owner fanfic here, or are you going to include a copy of Solider of Fortune for reference?

“The now-cool black clouds of night’s closing pages were turned by the warm, gentle fingers of amberlike dawn’s eager arrival.” — There’s a word for this: sunrise. Use that.

If you’re doing more describing than you are writing, you’re doing it wrong.

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

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).