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.