Balancing Words and Description

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I’ve been reading The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, the sequel to his stellar book The Shadow of the Wind, and noticed his eloquent use of description.  Passages swoop and soar with metaphor and simile in a way that brings life to the mundane.  Likewise, fantasy author China Miéville uses his extensive vocabulary to create a verbal feast for even the most basic of descriptions.  Yet sit in any writing class nowadays and you will be told to avoid this type of prose.  So what’s a writer to do?  We love words and the wonderful images the perfect word can create (if we didn’t, we’d be in some other profession), yet time and again we are told to avoid such things.

Like most advice in writing, the secret to good description is balance.  The writing teachers are attempting to help their students find balance by steering them away from “flowery” or “purple” prose which can outweigh their less flashy writing.  “Flowery” prose often stands out not because it is bad (although it can be) but because it holds a heightened sense of language.  It uses words and grammar that do not fall within the same range of usage as the rest of the author’s everyday words.  The reason authors like Zafón and Miéville succeed with their thicker prose is because no single phrase outshines the rest — all of the words used share that same heightened quality.

Looking closer at these two authors is fascinating because both approach complicated language in significantly different ways.  Miéville has a vocabulary as dense and versatile as H. P. Lovecraft.  When he describes a room or a character or a creature of his own creation, he can delve into description for lengthy paragraphs that appear like large text blocks (usually another no-no in writing classes).  He’s not afraid to flaunt his abilities as a true wordsmith and since the entire piece consists of this daunting language, it offers a huge payoff for those willing to risk it and explore.

Zafón, on the other hand, is a writer who describes entire cities in just a few sentences.  However, each sentence he does write is jam-packed with imagery that far outweighs the sparseness of his word count.  His dialogue is equally on target and sparing in use.  He has a good writer’s vocabulary (well above average) but never uses words that announce their presence within a sentence because all of his writing is consistently at the same level.

As writers, we can learn a lot from this, but in order to do so, we must once again be unflinchingly honest with ourselves.  We must look in the mirror and truthfully assess our abilities with language.  Few people possess the linguistic gifts that these men possess.  I certainly don’t.  But descriptive success is not measured in how many five-dollar words you can use.  Successful description is measured by how well your reader can see what you see.  If you can be the Fred Astaire of language, then make the words glide gracefully across the page.  Perhaps you’re more of a Gene Kelley, that’s fine too — a jazzy, flashy number can be equally delightful.  Both were great dancers, but completely different styles.  Likewise, you can be similar to Miéville or Zafón, but you might be better off emulating the straight-forward, no-nonsense writing of Elmore Leonard.

Balance is the door.  Self-awareness is the key.  Great writing is the room beyond.

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18 comments to Balancing Words and Description

  • You reminded me of a workshop story I did regarding a dragon and the woman hunting him. The dragon was blue. I used a ton of words for blue to describe the dragon. After reading the passage where my heroine first encounters the dragon a fellow workshop attendee noted with some asperity, “The dragon is blue!”

    As another workshop attendee noted later, “Just because you have a thesaurus doesn’t mean you have to use the words at the bottom of the list.”

  • Nice post, Stuart. It has particular relevance to this weeks revisions. In performing one last read to look for missing words, I found passages of description as if the character stopped to tell the reader what everything looked like. I froze, and I’m sure a reader would to.

    Thus, I edited one passage to show only the vital points that would make this character cringe, since the place reminded him of his sworn enemies. In other places, I mentioned only the what made another character relax, but I tried to tie every mentioned detail with some emotional value to the character observing.

    That way it wouldn’t read like a laundry list of sights, sounds and smells. I hope it worked.

  • Great point, Stuart. I think it’s good to remember that creative writing classes don’t have all the answers and that while you can learn a lot from them, it’s good to weigh what they offer with a little skepticism. (People did, after all, successfully write great material without them for thousands of years. The creative writing class is a twentieth century invention.) More specifically, it’s good to recognize how the advice from a class is shaped by the tastes of the teacher, and that includes genre. Many universities have active creative writing programs which never include popular fiction genres in their offerings, so the instruction tends to be weighted towards a certain kind of “literary” fiction. There’s good stuff to be learned from such classes, of course, but it’s helpful to remember that the skills you learn to play soccer are not the same as those you need to play baseball…

  • Yea Stuart! I totally agree. Short story…
    I once had a protégé writing mystery. Her book was critiqued by a well known literary writer, who suggested a total rewrite of the opening, paying attention to the setting, the slow evolution of discovery. The rewrite was lovely. And now would never sell. Now she now opened with this lilting flowery language instead of the previous opening — a dead body described with stark, sharp, cutting, descriptive language, on page one. The proper style of language and description for the proper type of book.
    Perfect tips, Stuart!

  • Alan — yes, sometimes the simplest word is the best. Elmore Leonard is one of my favorites for that simple, clear word usage. Jack Ketchum does a great job in that same way, too.

    NewGuyDave — Making connections from description to character is an excellent way to handle things, for many reasons, but one in particular that I like is that it’s like a Buy One Get One Free deal. Yes you’re describing the landscape, but hey, in the same sentence, you get characterization, too! Bonus! If done well, both character and location will become more real. Good luck!

    AJ — When working on my Masters, I was fortunate enough that my creative writing teacher (who was also my adviser) would let me write in whatever genre I wanted. So every week we’d be workshopping somebody’s tale of spousal abuse, childhood puppies, or romance gone wrong only to be followed up with my stories of robots, monsters, and magic. I actually learned a lot because the reader reactions were those of people who knew little about genre fiction. They reacted to the story itself without being influenced by love of genre. However, I did run into many professors who turned their nose at my plebeian work.

  • Faith — <> Absolutely. There are places for certain types of language and it’s important to know what is called for. Makes me think of the scientific papers my wife has written. In an effort to be exact and clear, scientists write the most confusing, garbled sentences. Whenever I read her papers, I have to hold off the editor in my head and just react to the content because the accepted language usage is not what a fiction reader wants but is perfect if you’re trying to recreate or understand somebody’s experiment.

  • I love this blog. It is always a highlight of my day.

    I think it is difficult to assess my own sentences. The things that I think are total shite end up being the things that other readers love…and vice versa. I guess this is where a good crit group would come in handy.

  • “So every week we’d be workshopping somebody’s tale of spousal abuse, childhood puppies, or romance gone wrong only to be followed up with my stories of robots, monsters, and magic.”

    Awesome.

  • April — Glad you enjoy what we write so much. Yes, it can take a while to learn how to self-edit. There’s no real trick to it other than practice (at least, not that I know of. Perhaps my colleagues have a good suggestion). Of course, feedback from a crit group or select readers or what-have-you can be very helpful but developing your inner-ear is just that — development. It’s like a muscle that needs to be stretched out and worked hard in order to build it up. And you do that by writing and then editing what you wrote. No easy way around it. 🙂

  • April Quote: The things that I think are total shite end up being the things that other readers love…and vice versa.

    And this happens in many facets of writing. In my WIP I had an ancillary character that my proof reader latched onto and wanted to know more about because of one specific act. Now I’m going back in with the rewrite and working on expanding that character’s role a bit. If he caught onto that character others may too.

    Stuart Quote: Zafón, on the other hand, is a writer who describes entire cities in just a few sentences.

    See, I like this. Too much description starts to lose me. When a writer goes into pages of description about a town or a room or building, weapon, landscape, etc, my attention starts to wander. I sigh in a, get on with it, sort of way and start flipping pages to skip to where the description ends and the action picks back up.

  • Daniel — Those who can pull off lengthy description are few and far between. But when you do find an author who succeeds at it, it can be a real eye-opener. For me, Dostoevsky hits the mark. Of course, it’s a matter of personal opinion. I know many people can’t stand the Russian authors (they do tend to go on and on and on about things). Knowing and studying the type of writing you enjoy can greatly improve the writing you produce. If you like the shorter, more direct approach, then I urge you to read those authors who are particularly talented at it.

  • Stuart’s right, a good crit group helps. I found that critiquing others pushed me be more critical of my own work.

    In the absence of a good group, try one of these http://www.critters.org or http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com/ Both are great places for genre writers to get feedback, improve skills, and make acquaintances with other genre writers. Critters is free and OWW is $49 a year, both cheap compared to some of the other workshops. Jeanne Cavelos of Odyssey and John Klima of Electric Velocipede are among the great resident editors at OWW.

    Good luck.

  • Late to the party. Great post, Stuart, as always. I remember a time when I thought that I hated descriptive writing, when I wanted stories the moved, that had dialogue and action, and suspense. And I still do like those stories. But at some point I read something — I don’t remember what it was — and I realized, “Oh, I don’t hate descriptive writing; I hate BAD descriptive writing.” As you say, there aren’t a lot of writers who can write pages of description successfully, but those who can are such a joy to read. That said, I have enormous respect for those who can paint a picture with only a few, perfectly placed brush strokes. Brief powerful descriptions, and yes, language that blends with the rest of the story.

  • Stuart and Faith both make great points.

    In regards to Faith’s comment: I’m often stuck dithering endlessly over what tone will be best for a certain story. I like to think I can write well in several styles, but I may never know, because I keep changing my mind about what to use. 😀

    Stuart’s comment also addresses a complicated area. I usually write in third person. If I wrote in first, the choice would be simple: write things like the character would if they were “real”. (Anyone wants to know what the main benefit of first person is, that’s it–from a writing perspective.)

    But when you write in third–even specifically third limited–there’s always the conflict between the author’s voice, the character’s voice, and possibly the narrator’s, if they’re a separate person. And finding the right balance is tough. In fact, there are probably several usable balances, which only makes the situation worse. Maybe you want a dark mood, but the character is an obsessively cheery sort, or an eternal optimist.

    Of course, it’s possible to move in between voices, if you’re good at it. Increase the distance to set the mood, lessen it to bring out the character. (Anyone wants to know what the main benefit of third person is, that’s it–from the writing perspective.)

    Anyway, great food for thought.

  • Atsiko — Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that he couldn’t write a piece until he found the right voice, and for him, that consisted of knowing, being able to picture, the narrator. For One Hundred Years of Solitude he couldn’t write until he understood that a very, very old woman was telling the story. That gave him the voice and the voice set the tone and everything else fell into place. Just another viewpoint to think about.

  • A lot of stories currently don’t have a narrator as such. I think the issue of the narrator is one of the more fscinating issues in this area of writing, but I really don’t see it taked about much.

  • Great post! Of course like most instructive and insightful posts about writing, it makes me feel lazy. 😉 I loathe writing description, because as a reader I don’t like reading it. I often find myself addding the bulk of the description after my first writing pass… trying to give at least some passing description of what readers will want know more about. This helps me avoid the dreaded “What is Tabitha wearing?” or “Describe this more. What does it feel like?” remarks that oft adorn the rewrite letters I get from Jen.

    Atsiko, excellent point about author’s voice versus character’s voice. What’s interesting to me is when readers assume the author’s opinions and the character’s opnions are the same. Maybe that’s a particular danger on first person narratives, but it happens.

  • Atsiko — I’m sure one of us MWers will take that idea on!

    J.F. — I think it’s often a matter of choosing the right things to describe. Most people don’t really care what somebody is wearing unless it plays into the tale. Most people fill in those details themselves anyway. It’s been my experience that even if you say “Tabitha wore a red, button down blouse,” readers will often change the blouse to green and then to a T-shirt or whatever suits them unless you keep bringing up the fact of what she’s wearing. And the only reason to do that is if it’s important. Otherwise, the reader’s imagination makes those decisions.