Wednesday, 20 September 2017

THE SKY IS FALLING! - Writing Descriptions

I was planning on doing part two of the cultural series as my next blog, but a certain event changed my mind.

I woke up the other morning to it raining. It was the drumming kind of rain, a heavy downpour that made a steady roar on the rooftop above me.
It was quite lovely, and expected.
Then something else happened. Something very unexpected.

It started to snow.
Let me repeat that. It was September 19th. It was snowing.

Yes, yes, I do live in Canada. Northern Alberta, no less. To people who don't know, I'm sure this comes as no surprise. Had this snow come near the end of the month, I wouldn't have been surprised.
But this was September 19th. It was barely out of Summer.
And yet, here I was, staring forlornly out of the window as freezing white flakes drifted down from the sky, making the fields and roof a horrifying white. For several hours the sky's dandruff continued, moving between tiny specks to massive clumps, painting a picture that fully revealed that yes, summer has ended and a Canadian winter is on its way.

Thankfully, the snowfall was light enough and it was still warm enough that the snow was completely gone within an hour or so after it stopped falling, so there's no need to panic.

Where am I going with this?

Two things: 1) Summer is over, and this is a sad event. 2) Let's talk about description.

Description is an interesting topic, considering that it is all based in stylistic choice. Some authors, like J.R.R Tolkien, choose to have minimal description, barely noting what the environments and characters look like before launching into the story. Others, like Patrick Rothfuss and Peter S. Beagle, are extremely poetic with their description, never dipping into the Purple Prose territory but still describing everything with extreme beauty and style. Still others, like R. A. Salvatore, like to remind people of the description of their main character several times over in the story with the same description, e.g; Ebony Skin, Lavender Eyes, and White Mane. Yes, Mr. Salvatore. Drizzt looks like a Drow with purple eyes. Thank you for reminding us.


There are also several other ways to use description. Some authors, like Douglas Adams, Jim Butcher, or Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor use description for great comedic effect. Others like Stephanie Meyer or E.L James use description as a way to butcher the art of language until those words are bloody and murdered.

So what are some different kinds of description and how are they used? How do they work?
Here are some examples:


It was a dwarf with a blue beard tucked into a golden belt, and very bright eyes under his dark-green hood.” - J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.

He was tall, rugged in feature and dress but not unkind or threatening in appearance. Wrinkles, which might have come from laughter, tugged at the edges of his eyes. Alenda thought his demeanor was remarkably cheerful, even friendly. She could not help thinking he was handsome, which was not the reaction she had expected to have about anyone she might meet in such a place. He was dressed in dirt-stained leather and wool and was well armed. On his left side, he had a short sword with an unadorned hilt. On his right was a similarly plain, longer, wider sword. Finally, slung on his back was a massive blade, nearly as tall as he was.”
-Michael J. Sullivan, Theft of Swords (Part One: The Crown Conspiracy)

This is the most common description, I find. There will be occasional callbacks to the character's description throughout the story, but aside from that there's a rundown of how the character looks and maybe a bit about impressions of the character's personality, but not much else. It's really good for getting a story moving, putting the images into the reader's mind, and keeping the prose of the story fairly invisible, not drawing attention to the writing style rather than the story.


The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.

She did not look anything like a horned horse, as unicorns are often pictured, being smaller and cloven-hoofed, and possessing that oldest, wildest grace that horses never had, that deer have only in a shy, thin imitation and goats in dancing mockery. Her neck was long and slender, making her head seem smaller than it was, and the mane that fell almost to the middle of her back was as soft as dandelion fluff and as fine as cirrus. She had pointed ears and thin legs, with feathers of white hair at the ankles; and the long horn above her eyes shone and shivered with its own seashell light even in the deepest midnight. She had killed dragons with it, and healed a king whose poisoned wound would not close, and knocked down ripe chestnuts for bear cubs.”

- Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn.

The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things.”

-Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind.

The night is like warm velvet around them. The stars, burning diamonds in the cloudless sky, turn the road beneath their feet a silver grey. The University and Imre are the hearts of understanding and art, the strongest of the four corners of civilization. Here on the road between the two there is nothing but old trees and long grass bending to the wind. The night is perfect in a wild way, almost terrifyingly beautiful.”

- Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind.

The first difference you can probably see between basic description and poetic description is the length. Where basic description will give the rudimentary looks of a character (or scene), poetic description tends to be more in metaphors, similes and suggestions rather than in the simple explanations of what something is. Where the language doesn't tend to go overboard in terms of floweriness, it gives a full picture of what something both looks like and what their nature is and often gives extremely beautiful imagery.

I personally love poetic imagery, but it strikes me as a difficult descriptive style to use without going into Purple Prose territory, or sounding overly pretentious. For example, in Twilight, there are many times throughout the writing that you could tell she was trying to sound poetic, but it just came off as awkward, jarring, and extremely pretentious. Part of this was because it was in first person. Having flowery prose works in The Name of the Wind because Kvothe, who is telling the story, sees the world in a very poetic way. He's a storyteller. It's what he does. In The Last Unicorn (which is told in third person) the story is written to feel like a new kind of fairytale, and the language fits the story. Also, Peter S. Beagle uses it from page one, not going in and out of poetic description. Everything is told with that beautiful language.

Bella is supposed to be the average teen. The words fit a bard, but not a teenage girl.

In short, as beautiful as poetic description is, it is best used discerningly. In first person, it has to fit the character. In a different kind of story, it must be used consistently or for emphasis.
(Note: there's a great podcast on when to use this kind of prose by the Writing Excuses podcast right Here. I highly recommend checking it out.)


He was not conspicuously tall, his features were striking but not conspicuously handsome. His hair was wiry and gingerish and brushed backwards from the temples. His skin seemed to be pulled backwards from the nose. There was something very slightly odd about him, but it was difficult to say what it was. Perhaps it was that his eyes didn't seem to blink often enough and when you talked to him for any length of time your eyes began involuntarily to water on his behalf. Perhaps it was that he smiled slightly too broadly and gave people the unnerving impression that he was about to go for their neck.”

-Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Imagine a fifteen-year-old-boy.
Nope. That was not right at all. Try again.
Okay, stop.
He is tall. He's skinny, with short hair and long teeth that he deliberately tries to hide when he smiles. He smiles more than he thinks he does.
Imagine a fifteen-year-old-boy.
No. Again.
No. Not close.
He has fingers that move like they have no bones. He has eyes that move like he has no patience. He has a tongue that changes shape every day. He has a face that changes shape every day. He has a skeletal structure and coloring and hair that change every day. He seems different than you remember. He is always unlike he was before.
Good. That's actually pretty good.”

-Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor, Welcome to Night Vale.

The driver-side window rolled down and revealed a young man whom fathers of teenage daughters would shoot on sight. He had pale skin and deep grey eyes. His dark, slightly curly hair was long enough to declare casual rebellion, and tousled to careless perfection. He wore a black leather jacket and a white shirt, both of them more expensive than any two pieces of furniture at my apartment. In marked contrast, there was a scarf inexpertly crocheted from thick white yarn around his neck, under the collar of the jacket. He faced straight ahead, so that I saw only his profile, but I felt confident that he was smirking on the other side of his face, too.”

-Jim Butcher, Small Favor.

I looked like a fairly normal American boy, dressed in loose jeans and a T-shirt. I've been told I was a handsome kid – some even said that I had an 'innocent face'. I was not too tall, had dark brown hair, and was skilled at breaking things.

Quite skilled.”

-Brandon Sanderson, Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians.

I almost feel as though this one doesn't need explanation, since description and sassy narration is one of the biggest contributors to comedic writing. Bad or strange metaphors/similes, subversion of expectations, strange comparisons, or even just unexpected description can make even the most mundane descriptions hilarious.

For example: Harry Dresden fighting vampires while wearing his usual epic outfit is standard and awesome, but Harry Dresden fighting vampires wearing nothing but a pair of duck-patterned boxers is absolutely hilarious.

This kind of narration is often done in first person series (Alcatraz vs The Evil Librarians, The Percy Jackson series/The Magnus Chase series/The Kane Chronicles, the Dresden Files, and so on) but is also found with a narrator character, such as in Welcome to Night Vale or The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

This is a kind of humour that lends itself well to character viewpoint, but must be consistent, particularly because it is linked so closely to character voice. If the narrator in Welcome to Night Vale or Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Ugh, that's annoying to type over and over. Let's just go with HHGTTG) suddenly broke character, then it would lose part of its humour. But by having a narrator who is on constant sass mode, even the simplest things become descriptive gems.

All of these kinds of descriptions (including many other kinds that I haven't included for time's and specificity's sake) are extremely useful in their respective situations and works. But this opens another door: What about bad description?


We've all read it. The really bad, really clunky, just...what the heck kind of sentences that either leave us scratching our heads or laughing uncontrollably from their ridiculousness.

Such as the works of a certain 'romance'/'erotic' author who has famously become one of the worst authors to ever call their work 'literature'...

Yes. I'm talking about E.L. James and the awkwardly horrific Fifty Shades series. (No, I haven't read these, and I never will, but there are webpages dedicated to the strangeness of this woman's writing.)
Her work is full of atrocious lines. Lines like...

I line up the white ball and with a swift clean stroke, hit the center ball of the triangle square on with such force that a striped ball spins and plunges into the top right pocket. I've scattered the rest of the balls.”

- Fifty Shades of Grey

His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel...or something.”

-Fifty Shades of Grey

She's like a fallen ethereal wraith.”

- Fifty Shades Darker

They dance and weave bright blazing orange with tips of cobalt blue in the fireplace of Christian's apartment.”

- Fifty Shades Darker

Or how about its predecessor, Twilight?

It was beautiful, of course; I couldn't deny that. Everything was green: the trees, their trunks covered with moss, their branches hanging with a canopy of it, the ground covered with ferns. Even the air filtered down greenly from the leaves.”


Then a doctor walked around the corner, and my mouth fell open. He was young, he was blond...and he was handsomer than any movie star I'd ever seen.”


There are, of course, many more awkward books out there that I could hunt down and reference, but let's stick to these two...examples.
What makes these descriptions really awkward?

1) Incorrect use of words.

In the final Fifty Shades quote (the one about fire), the biggest problem with the description is that the colours are out of order. If there is blue fire, it is at the base of the flame where the fire is hottest, and it filters upward into warmer hues. Had it been written more like:

They dance and weave, bright blazing orange with a base of cobalt blue in the fireplace of Christian's apartment.

It's still terrible writing, but at the very least it makes sense. The writing might not be good, but at least the colours are in the proper order.
This problem is also present in one of my most hated lines of Twilight (Partly because this is a description used over and over again): and that would be when she says “Even the air filtered greenly from the leaves.”

What's wrong with this? Well, unless the air is poisoned, air cannot filter green. Light can filter green. Air is transparent, aka INVISIBLE. What she described is poison gas.

Also, this description took place during a rainstorm. As a person who grew up in a place of frequent rainstorms, I can pretty much assure you that 'air filtering green' and general bright greenness is not what tends to be noticed in a forest during a rainstorm.

In fact, rainstorms tend to make things look grey. Very grey.

Dismally grey.

Simple error, but it makes all the difference. If words are used incorrectly to describe something that is meant to be taken seriously, then it can create a HUGE problem.

2) Use of the same word repetitively throughout a single description.

I line up the white ball and with a swift clean stroke, hit the center ball of the triangle square on with such force that a striped ball spins and plunges into the top right pocket. I've scattered the rest of the balls.”

I feel like this is a bit self-explanatory.

True, there are not many ways to describe someone making a first break in a game of pool, but the overuse of the word 'ball' and the most basic use of all other words in the description makes the entire thing feel flat and...well...awkward.

I line up the cue ball and, with a swift, clean stroke, break the triangle. The balls scattered across the table, one of the striped balls spinning to plunge into the top right pocket.

Again, still not good, but at least it makes sense of what it happening. By reworking the description so that there is one less use of the word 'ball', it immediately becomes cleaner and has more clarity than before.

3) Overall strange word choice

His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel...or something.”

I...I don't even know how this can be fixed. For one, removing the dark melted chocolate fudge caramel. And the something.

This is just a weird choice of words. What is a 'dark melted chocolate fudge caramel'?

This isn't just strange word choice, actually. This is downright bizarre.

What can we take from this passage?

Choose a word. Choose a description. Read it aloud to yourself. Does it sound ridiculous? Like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel? Change it.

This could be made into an interesting – or, at least, passable – description.

His voice is warm and husky, rich as dark chocolate.


His voice is warm and husky.


His voice is warm and husky, seductive as dark chocolate.

Note: Fudge and caramel are simple desserts. Not particularly seductive. As far as seductive foods, it's better off to use terms that are overly decadent. Dark Chocolate, as far as foods go, is at least somehow related to seduction.

All in all, though, down to basics, what is it that makes the first descriptions good, and the latter descriptions bad?

Well, here's the whole thing in a nut shell.
A good description uses word choice that suits the mood and style of the book. It doesn't break character voice. It uses sensible comparisons, even if those comparisons are used for comedic effect.

How do you learn to do this?

Study your favourite authors. Look at the word choices they use. Ask yourself: why does this work? How does it work? Describe things that you see. Use extremely colourful descriptions, and then tone them back to the most basic words. Break the descriptions, then fix them into something good.

Practice. Practice, study, more practice. That's how you learn how to write, and that's how you learn to write descriptions. Break words apart, and stitch them back together with coffee, tea, sweat, and tears.


  1. i found this a helpful post to read. glad I stopped by. :)