There are four types of description in novels.
At least, for the purpose of this blip, there are four as broken into the following categories: good descriptions, okay descriptions, not okay descriptions, and bad descriptions.
Seems easy enough, right? There are descriptions that make your scene pop right out of the page and appear to dance before your reader’s eyes. They’re the descriptions that engage all of our senses and bring the book to life. Those are the good descriptions.
“Okay descriptions” use mainly visual details – what you can see – to show us what things look like. They paint a picture, but it’s static. It might be as fanciful and beautiful as a Van Gogh, but it doesn’t come alive the way a Van Gogh does. It’s not a great description because it fails to engage every part of your reader.
To cross to the other side of the spectrum there are “not okay” descriptions. These sorts of descriptions never engage our other senses and have a hard time helping us picture… anything. The scene is blurred or confused. This can include times when a house or palace or tower doesn’t have a floor plan. The colors in life are drained, when looking through the lens of this description. It’s boring, but not horrid.
Finally, there are those descriptions which do nothing. They try and try and try but the picture just doesn’t work. No matter how much the author attempts to describe, there are some descriptions best left unused.
Now, it’s hard to say exactly which descriptions are bad and which are good, because it will vary from style to style and even genre to genre. What’s write in psychological horror is not going to be right in historical fiction set in 1700s England.
At that same time, however, there are three descriptions I want to look at today which are bad. They never, ever work, no matter what type of book you’re writing.
Of course this one comes first, right? I mean, I titled the post after this description.
Basically, someone describes a tall object/building/person as “looming”.
Now, what is wrong with this? Well, nothing, technically. But I want you to try and picture the following sentence exactly: “The tower loomed over Sarah and her dog.”
What does this show you and inform you about? Not much. Unless we know the exact height of Sarah, this tower could be ten feet tall and Sarah four feet tall. I would consider that “looming”. There are some words that are just vague. They don’t engage any of our senses. “Looming” is an abstract word. We understand the basic idea inside our brain, but the second we try to describe it in exact terms, we draw a blank.
So don’t have things “loom”. There is one exception: when a tall character hover, you can call that looming. That’s a different kind of looming and therefore has a different connotation and can be explained: “Jesse followed Sarah around the inn, looming over her shoulder like a spectre intent on destruction”. Why does this work? Because “looming” here means to hover. Not to be excessively tall in comparison to some other relative height. Which… doesn’t make much sense even when you consider it from an abstract standpoint.
Basically… don’t use it.
Doom – Impending or otherwise
The next two words I want to focus on are descriptions of emotion.
Doom is one of those words that – when you say it ten times in a row – it stops sounding like a word and more like the sound a percussion instrument makes. But that’s beside the point.
This word is used in novels to describe a certain emotion. “I felt my doom approach”, or “’Embrace your doom, it is your destiny!’”
There are two reasons this word is… stupid.
First, it sounds dramatic and amateur. “Doom” and “destiny” are two such words that belong to the cliché rant of a villain in a children’s book about being yourself.
Second, this word describes nothing. It doesn’t fully describe an emotion. It sums up that emotion, but doesn’t make me feel it. This is the problem with the next word as well, so I’ll wait to tell you to fix this until…
Embrace Your Dread
One of the strongest emotions we can use in novels is fear. The strongest kind of fear, I believe, is dread. It’s that feeling of ‘oh no I’m gonna die any second someone help me please ahhhh’.
The emotion itself is fine. It’s wonderful, actually. I use it all the time. What is wrong is when you use the actual word to describe it.
Just like doom, this word describes nothing. It gives us an abstract concept that is difficult to make concrete. It sounds amateur and lazy as well. It is a summation of an emotion your reader wants to feel. We don’t want to read a summation.
Alternatives to Mediocrity
So… what do we do?
If we need something to loom (or “tower” for that matter), what do we do? If dread or doom are the emotion of the moment, how do we describe them?
The first is fairly simple. Instead of describing height, describe something else. If you say something is a “tower”, your reader will automatically assume that it is tall. Unless you specify otherwise, your reader will imagine a tall bastion of stone made to protect something.
Instead of describing the height, describe other important aspects. Talk of its width, perhaps, or what it’s made out of. Instead of saying a person “looms” over another, detail the emotion on their face – and throw in the fact that the main character has to tilt their head back to see that particular face.
Dread and doom take a bit more work.
Emotions need to be felt. If your reader doesn’t feel emotion, they won’t care about your story. Never, ever tell us what emotions are being felt. Don’t say “he felt a sense of dread” or “doom hung in the air”.
Instead of using the emotion as its own descriptor, show us what that emotion looks like.
For dread, show us the shallow, difficult breathing. The scattered and wild thoughts, the wide eyes and the parted lips. A sheen of sweat, shaking hands, a weak heartbeat.
For doom, show us the reluctance, the fear, the anger, the sadness, all those emotions which sum up “doom”. And show those emotions through their own descriptions: a racing heart, a lump in the throat, wild thoughts, thoughtless attempts to flee from the doom, and so forth.
Description isn’t hard.
Good description is.
It takes time. But that time is worth it when your story comes alive.
What do you think? What kinds of descriptions do you think are bad? Leave a comment and share!
Emotional Outlining (Brandon)