You know how lots of times when you’re reading your eyes glaze over and you have no idea what the last paragraph was about? Odds are, the paragraph was descriptive. Either long-winded, or boring, or both.
My last post was about exceptionally good description. I gave examples from Flannery O’Connor, Dean Koontz, Louise Penny, Joanna Bourne, and others. All kinds of books represented. What distinguishes really good description from the humdrum?
First of all, you won’t be surprised, is to make up your own similes and metaphors. Clichés are deadly. I like them when I’m lazy, but they don’t win you any accolades, and they don’t help your readers see things clearly. Go back and revise the next go through.
Second, don’t tell your reader exactly what street your character is on unless it is truly, absolutely essential. I go bug-eyed trying to keep up with street names and cross street names and on and on. Stieg Larrson comes to mind with his set-in-Sweden books. Hated all those street names that meant nothing to me or to the story.
Same with landscape or weather – if the readers really need to know, then show them with action. For instance, the famous “It was a dark and stormy night,” is telling. Instead, show us: Rebecca pulled her cloak tighter, trying to keep out the wind and the rain… or … Rebecca stumbled in the dark, her thin cloak useless against the rain and the wind. Look at the verbs: pulled, to keep, stumbled. And you have a character for whom the dark and stormy night is important. So the reader will find it important and palatable, too.
Use your similes and metaphors sparingly. Make them sing, and you won’t need so many.
And how do you make them sing? The best description is not at first glance a simile or a metaphor. Again, look for ways to describe character or scene by using action, by showing, not telling.
Example: “She shook hands with her son at the airport when he left for Hong Kong.” From “The Duck Egg” by Molly Bruce Jacobs. Look how much we know about that woman and her relationship to her son from that one sentence. The author could have told us all about how the mom was rather cold at heart, or so emotionally stunted she felt nothing, or her own mother had never… but she didn’t. She showed us an action – the hand shake with the added detail of the trip being all the way to Hong Kong – instead of telling.
Another rather long example, but it is too good not to share. This is from John D. MacDonald’s The Empty Copper Sea and exemplifies showing a state of mind, not the easiest thing to show, not tell: a piece of newspaper has blown around his ankle as Travis walks along, thinking of Gretel, with whom he’s newly smitten. “I wadded it to walnut size and threw it some fifteen feet at a trash container. The swing lid of the trash container was open about an inch and a half. If it went in, I would live forever. It didn’t even touch the edges as it disappeared inside. I wished it was all a sound stage, that the orchestra was out of sight. I wished I was Gene Kelly. I wished I could dance.” Look at the verbs. (I love that passage.) (Contrast: Travis was in love. … or … Travis’s heart sang with new love (ugh).)
So look for ways to show by having the character do something significant, like shake her son’s hand instead of hugging him. Look for brand new ways to compare familiar things. (Dashiell Hammett: “He went like that – like a fist when you open your hand.”)
You may think these wonderful descriptions just pop into a writer’s head. Sometimes they do, but lots of time, the writer sits there and ponders. Give yourself time to think, and time to revise, and time to think some more. You can do it.