Tuesday, September 13

What Can You Say About a Thing? (or Description For Everyone)

By James R. Tuck, @JamesTuckwriter

Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly contributor)

It seems as if there is an either/or relationship with description for most folks. You love it or you hate it, no real middle ground.

I am a fan of a lot of description, and tend to fall into the camp of using a lot of it in my writing, but my wife hates it, doesn't use it and doesn't even want to read it.

I asked her why she hates it so much and her response was, in effect: “I don't see what the color of the couch has to do with anything.”

She is a hater of all things superfluous in a story. It took a few times reading some of the same things as her to realize that she hates the paint by numbers setting list a lot of writers fall prey to. It made me think about how to use description in new ways and I found that a lot of the best writers out there keep description to a minimum when it comes to an actual thing. If it isn't important they don't tell you anyone's eye color, or what furniture is in a room, or anything of the such but you still feel like you know exactly what is happening in the scene.

Now, to be fair, if the color of the couch is important to the story, truly important, then include it. Say the couch is dark brown and this is important because your main character has just killed someone on it . They are being questioned by the police as to why their victim, that they just stashed behind the drapes, is missing. The couch being brown hides the blood, so its color is important, especially when the policeman begins to sit on it and they cannot tell where the blood actually is and thus they worry that the officer will sit in the wet spot and reveal their crime.

Otherwise, it probably doesn't matter.

I have found that, rather than list the physical attributes of a thing it is far more compelling to describe the nature of the thing, to use metaphor to describe.

For instance:

Basic Description:

John Crowe was tall, nearly six and a half feet tall, and on the thinner side. He wore the same suit he always wore, a brown tweed that was too short for him. His hair lay flat on his head and he had a bald spot on his crown. His cheeks stayed dark with stubble no matter how often he shaved.

Better Description:

John Crowe was of an enviable height. The cloth of his suit attempted to perform its function but his hands hung far from his shoulders and his ankles rattled around between his shoes and the cuffs of his trousers. The material didn't sound as he moved about, the whisper of tweed on tweed worn away by the first anniversary of his receiving it as a graduation present. He kept his head raised knowing that most weren't tall enough to see where his hair failed to cover and to put as much light on his shadowed cheeks to avoid appearing gaunt and skullish as his face was want to do.

Now those are rough, but hopefully they illustrate the point.

I am a fan of using metaphor as much as possible. It not only keeps things interesting for the reader but for me as a writer. It is a great brain stretching exercise to continue finding new things to compare and contrast things in my story to. I keep giving this advice, but I find a lot of inspiration in this technique through reading poetry. Using metaphor is mostly what poets do, they create pictures and images with words in a manner that invokes feelings rather than just giving the list of visual clues. Terms like: a mouth like the last summer sunset


her love was like a rear naked choke


the memory sat wetly in the center of his mind growing clammy as it cooled

may all seem a bit trite or cheesy out of context but used properly they can make a connection in the readers mind beyond saying:

a pretty mouth


a fierce love


an uncomfortable memory.

Hope this helps you find new ways to say the same old thing!

James was born and raised in Georgia and grew up drawing and reading a steady helping of Robert E. Howard stories, Golden Age comics, and books he was far too young to be reading. Combined with a very Southern involvement in church and watching horror movies, this became the bedrock of his creativity. He became a tattoo artist, and now writes dark fantasy. He's the author of the Deacon Chalk: Occult Bounty Hunter series, a variety of short stories and novellas set in the same world (and some outside of it), and the editor of the Thunder on the Battlefield anthologies. His newest series (co-written with Debbie Viguie), is Robin Hood: Demon's Bane.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

About Robin Hood: Demon's Bane

Sherwood Forest is a place of magic, and Prince John and his allies are demons bent upon ruling Britain. The solstice draws close, and Prince John and the Sheriff hold Maid Marian, whose blood sacrifice will lock the prince’s hold on the kingdom and the crown. Unless Marian can reach Robin with a magic artifact coveted by the enemy and entrusted to her by the Cardinal, the ritual will occur. 

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. With all due respect. That example of 'better' hit a nerve.

    Don't make your reader wade through tons of unnecessary words. Get it said. It's about the story, not proving your skill of word craft. An occasional twist in description is fine, but you aspiring writers...NEVER FLOOD a paragraph with prose out of the nineteenth century.


    If that was the first paragraph of a novel I picked up I'd be closing the the book before I waded through all of that.

  2. I would have to agree. Sounds like the example and the "better" were reversed. I'll be your wife would like the first one also :) We anti-descriptive types prefer things simplistic, but not "barren".

  3. I like description, but it's a fine line between enough and too much. I also like when the description conveys the mood or feeling. Like instead of a dark green couch--a goose poop green couch.

    I like metaphors and similes. A well place one can create a great atmosphere, but too many become tiring and turn me off. I once read a book that had a simile per paragraph (or close to it). It drove me insane, and about a third of the way through they stopped making any sense. The author tried way to hard and it failed.

  4. The relative amount of description, narration, and dialogue depends on the genre. Literary readers seem to love beautiful sentences that help them imagine the scene. Faster paced stories of adventure, mystery, or suspense seem to work better with a much higher percentage of dialogue and narration. I'm reading a Vince Flynn story now and I'm pretty sure that Mitch Rapp doesn't know or give a damn about the color of the chair he is sitting on. On the other hand, the heroine in a Nora Roberts story might care a lot.

  5. While the first description sounds bland, there's a lot going on behind the scenes that I can wonder about. Why is he always wearing this same too-short suit? Did he buy this suit in high school/college and now he's grown more but can't afford a new one? Was it inherited? That's the kind of detail that I like to wonder about, but not necessarily have answered if there's no plot relevance. It draws me into the story

    In the second option, the description is so over-written, it's confusing. I had to reread the first description to figure out what picture the second one was trying to paint for me. I don't have the brain power to wonder about a character's backstory while also trying to parse a short description about him.