I’m really overworked right now (and it’s not as people are desperately waiting for me to publish these) so I’m switching to putting up new posts fortnightly.
We all know the phrase purple prose. (If you aren’t included in “all” it means prose descriptions so convoluted and ornate that they intrude upon the story, render comprehension difficult, and often actually mean nothing or involve malapropisms and contradictory descriptions. In other words: it’s too complicated and fluffy for utility of writing.) Many of us have heard the phrase beige prose. (It’s overly simple prose. In other words: it’s too barren and brief for utility of writing.) While both of those extremes of descriptive quantity are undesirable in writing, quality writing can be filled with or sparse with descriptions without being either of those unwelcome colours. It’s all about density.
No, not as in: being stupid. Nor as in: being difficult to follow due to being closely packed with ideas or complexities of style. Well, a little like the latter. But mostly as in: mass per unit volume. Mass here meaning, well; meaning, and unit volume being: per word.
This is because, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, not all descriptive text is created equal. It’s possible to write pages and pages of description which are utterly worthless because they, ultimately, signify nothing, and it’s possible to write one word of description which is so evocative that it gives the readers one hell of a punch in the gut.
For example, which of these descriptions works the best?
“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said. She was guilty. (Description word count: 5)
“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she bewailed dejectedly. There were no words for the crushing anguish of guilt which filled her heart like frozen water sinking a broken ship. (Description word count: 24)
“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said, her voice tight. (Description word count: 5)
“I’m sorry I killed your brother,” she said, her voice tight. She blinked rapidly, holding back tears, but held her head high – as if that would prevent drowning in grief. (Description word count: 24)
Okay, so none of them are particularly brilliant, given that I came up with them in under a minute, but they illustrate the point.
Option one is Beige Prose; there is no indication of the feelings until they are bluntly, and emotionlessly, stated.
Option two is Purple Prose; not only does trying to invoke the Titanic and its friends detract from the emotional resonance of the scene, the sentence also mixes its metaphors (something that fills as it crushes), and – worst of all – it tells the readers absolutely nothing about how that particular character feels and acts.
Option three isn’t the greatest sentence in the world, but it avoids both the others’ pitfalls, showing rather than telling and, although it has the same amount of words as option one, the description of action and the inference of pain from it tells the reader more.
Option four, meanwhile, has the same amount of words as option two, but they don’t just sit there looking pretty – each word tells the reader something. The emotional situation option two takes a confused metaphor or two and more than twenty words to explain, option four gives in eight (and adds to it characterisation – she’s drowning in guilt but trying not to and holding her emotions in) which leaves plenty of other words for more information and descriptions.
Both options three and four are reasonable types of description, depending on whether you prefer to write minimalist (the least amount of description necessary to get the story across) or with immersive and lavish description (the most amount of description to paint the world and characters without clouding the story). This is because three and four give the reader more information and emotion per word than options one and two. It is also because, all importantly, options one and two – by their under and over stated natures – don’t actually make sense.
And this is what I’m getting at: it’s not enough to have descriptions – large or small – in a work. You also have to understand why they’re there, what they do, and which ones actually function properly.
1) Description has to Orient the Reader: Despite what many people think, description is not an optional garnish for the story. Description serves a very vital purpose. This is because it is impossible to show the setting or characterise the characters without describing them. Without sufficient description – without description serving its most basic purpose – you get meaningless, feeling-less, blather by talking heads in white space. The reason that beige prose is bad prose is that it is insufficiently descriptive prose. Minimalist descriptive prose, on the other hand, still has enough description to orient the readers in both the space and the people. Despite the term “Scrip fic” in fanfiction, even real scripts require description of character and setting. Not as much as prose, admittedly, but still a sufficient amount to allow the set and actors to be made and perform appropriately and orient the audience. If a writer fails to put enough description into a scene, the readers will be quite justified in wondering why these toneless, un-embodied, people are floating around in the middle of nowhere. Tacking a quick description onto the end of the scene won’t help, either, because it either is too late to convince the reader that the character’s aren’t in blank space, or – if the reader has done the writer’s job for them and invented characters and a setting for the conversation – it will destroy the mental image and understanding which the reader has built up. Similarly, shoving a quick description at the start will only serve to make the readers wonder where the setting and feelings went. Without sufficient description to orient the reader, they are left dizzy, confused, and failed by the author who did not take the time to ground them in this new reality.
2) Description has to Suit the Setting: Have you ever had the misfortune of enjoying a typically Medieval-esque fantasy only to have your suspension of disbelief brutally slaughtered when something very loud or very fast was compared to a sonic boom? What about a story focused around aliens which describes the villain as inhumane? Or a story set in Victorian London where the prose (which should match the point of view character) described an airship as “cool” or a love interest’s “cute butt”? If you’ve ever encountered anything like that, you probably already get what I’m going on about here. The ONLY excuse for description to be mismatched with the setting is if the point of view character (or omniscient third-person narrator) is explicitly and deliberately being juxtaposed with a setting to which they themselves do not belong. (A book about a time traveller written in tight-third person or first person smartarse might well use descriptions that reference things which have not yet been invented, while an omniscient third person narrator has the pleasure of being able to tell you exactly how many nostril hairs a dog on the other side of the universe, ten million years after the story, has – if they should choose to wander away from the main narrative like that with regularity – or to discuss why a character’s opinion of something being described is inaccurate. Stories which are told from any other point of view than those do not have this pleasure.) Now, this does not mean that every single word has to be from the time and place in which the story is set – else every Medieval-esque fantasy would be written in Middle English – but the author does have to choose their words with care, and avoid those blatantly inappropriate for the setting but normal for the author’s life, so that they do not disturb the setting.
3) Description has to Suit the Character: The funny thing about prose is that, while it is not as directly form a character as their speech, it is still inevitably the story as told by someone. That’s what point of view is, and there is no way to write fiction without a point of view. It could be the protagonist, or a revolving set of characters, or an omniscient being standing firmly outside of the story (i.e. the author’s voice), but it’s still someone’s take on events. This means that the descriptions should be in tune with the character whose point of view the story is written in. An omniscient narrator, who describes every character’s appearance in a sort of oddball way, focuses on the less common features rather than the obvious, and always starts with each character’s worst features should not begin describing a love interest with a loving and traditional run down of their hair, eyes, and skin. A tight-third person story following a taciturn, plainspoken character who is focused on getting to the cells to rescue their comrade should not veer off to gush over the beauteous architecture and how the castle’s high towers touch the sky like little silver needles attempting to pin blue silk. You might think that’s the best description in the world, but if the character whose point of view the story, even in the third person, is told through wouldn’t even be looking at the sky – let alone considering it in poetic burbling – the prose shouldn’t be describing it. If you absolutely need to include a mention of the tall towers for plot and foreshadowing reasons: make it match the character (he might notice the pattern of shadows the towers cause and think about if that will help or hinder the upcoming escape, for instance).
Likewise, an extremely visual or poetic character – such as a painter or, you know, a poet – would be inclined to more lavish physical descriptions, so blunt and minimalist descriptions would not be appropriate. For instance: a painter or tailor confronted with a “green dress” probably would automatically categorise it by the appropriate shade of green, and possibly the fabric, “dress of jade silk” – but if the generic is always used, it starts to feel like the “expert” doesn’t know jack shit about their profession and trade. And that is also important: a character’s profession – and mood – will decide what they will notice (and thus what the prose will describe) as much as their personality will. Thieves will notice escape routes and the expense (and fence-ability) of items before they notice how beautiful something is. Visual artists will give more vivid descriptions of appearances, but chefs and perfumers will take note of how things taste and smell first. A detective will be more inclined to catalogue things factually, while a writer will be more inclined to describe things with indefinite language (it might be this, it could be used for that, why does that person have that, etc).
4) Description has to Suit the Plot: The balance between keeping prose true to the person (that is point of view) from which it is told and keeping your audience from strangling you for seemingly pulling details from nowhere, or constantly dragging their attention away from what is important to focus on décor, is a difficult one. Generally speaking, you need to introduce all the details – that is, describe the things – that are vital to the plot before they become vital to the plot. Or, to reverse Chekhov’s famous point, if you want to take a gun off the wall and shoot it in act three, you had damn well better mention that it’s there in act one. Likewise, if you want to take a gun off the wall and fire it in act three, you have to make sure – back in act one – that the wall is not so cluttered as to render the gun un-findable. To put that in plain English: any detail relevant to the plot must be described sufficiently for its relevance(minimum: a passing note that it exists, so that it does not seem to have been pulled out of the writer’s arse thin air when needed).
In beige prose the problem is that a thing will not be mentioned at all until it is suddenly needed – whether this is a gun on the wall, the fact that the characters are human, or even the location something is taking place in. This is how some, badly written, pieces have characters suddenly and dramatically falling down the stairs and dying, when so far the prose has given no indication that they are embodied and in a building, let alone near sufficiently fatal stairs!
In purple prose, meanwhile, the problem is that the author misbalances the amount of attention each thing described is given – thereby still managing to make the readers feel that they have pulled plot convenient things from their rectums. In these cases the author will give long and complex descriptions about just about everything – except those things which actually matter (location, things that are going to affect the plot, etc). This is how some stories (which will remain nameless) end up with a vague mention that the character is walking down the street, then give paragraph upon paragraph on what they are wearing, only to suddenly have the character nearly run over by a carriage – leaving the readers to wonder why the hell it was not earlier mentioned that there was a carriage racing down the street or, at the very least, that the setting was pre-automotive! (For the record, if a carriage were racing down the street so wildly that someone could be hit, the character should at least notice the sound of hooves and the yelling of people trying to get out of the way that would accompany it.) Likewise, if a character – especially if it is the introduction to them – is described performing some action that is not usually performed while armed (renovating a house, for example) and then when other characters sneak up on them, they suddenly pull out a pair of guns from nowhere; the prose damn well should have mentioned that they were armed before that point.
5) Description has to Suit the Pace: The wonderful thing about prose is that it does not – for all that the overarching feel of a piece should be consistent – have to stay at the same level of description the whole way through. The downside of this is that you have to match the amount of description to how fast the story should be moving at any given point …and many, many authors fall into the trap of assuming that the more important and climactic a scene, the more description it requires. This is how some epic, “fast paced” battles wind up with a paragraph’s description of the light shining off the swords, or the fighters’ clothes and faces, or the picturesque surroundings between every slash and parry. Descriptive prose is not a video camera, dear authors; what the camera tells us in a millisecond takes a page in the prose. Slow and steady, or interaction focused, scenes can bear the load of large descriptions because they have the time and breadth to do so. Fast, or action focused, scenes cannot because they are thin, wiry things and the weight will crush and halt them. This, for the record, is why it’s so damned important to describe what exists before you get to those fast scenes. If the prose describes the winding alleyways, slippery rooftops, and secret escape routes while the thief is on their way to steal the crown jewels, it saves the readers from being rightly pissed off when – later – the thief is apparently chased through white space which morphs into convenient escape routes as needed.
6) Description has to have the Correct Meaning: Vermillion is a kind of red. It is not green. Although livid can mean reddish, when someone is livid with strong emotion it means that they look strangled by it (discoloured and blanched – that is, pale – with a bluish tinge). Tenebrous is dark, gloomy, or obscure – it has nothing to do with being tentative. Greaves means lower leg armour. If your character is wearing their greaves on their arms, they should be both uncomfortable and looking for a new squire. I don’t know if there’s any more to say about this than: don’t just assume you know what a word means. Check and make sure that your description does not describe something different than what you thought you were describing. Very few words have exact synonyms. More often they mean something very similar, but not precisely the same – be that slightly different shades of colour, or intertwined but distinct feelings, or other gradients. Don’t just look up synonyms in the thesaurus: check the dictionary to see if the words the thesaurus gave you actually describe what you want to describe.
7) Description has to have the Correct Implications: Serviette and napkin both mean napkin. However, in Victorian London (and even, to a far lesser degree, today) which you chose to use would reveal whether you were upper (napkin) or middle (serviette) class. (Long story short: the new middle class tended to use fancier words to sound more posh, while the upper class – secure in their pedigrees – used plain English.) Now, that sort of distinction is going to be more important in dialogue than in prose, but it is important in matching the prose to the point of view the story is narrated from. This fun game, however, is not limited to class-distinctions. Two words with the same meaning can have different implications. Laid off and fired both mean fired, but the general understanding is that laid off wasn’t personal and fired was, not because they have an official difference in meaning, but because people generally use them that way. Fired is evocative of swiftness, anger, and the personal touch. Laid off brings up feelings of mass action, inevitability, and depression. And this, this, is why you can’t just decide to be a writer one day – why not everyone can be one – and why it is actually very difficult. Writing is about knowing the value – the implications, the mass density – of every single word, and knowing how to evoke the deepest and most accurate feeling from them. Implication is to writing as the affects of atomic weight is to science: it is not enough to know what the mean or weigh; you have to know exactly what they can and will do.
8) Description has to be Understandable: Despite what the writers of beige prose think, minimalism does not mean the smallest number of words. It means the smallest number of words necessary to clearly convey the meaning and story. Likewise, writers of purple prose tend to assume that vivid writing is cramming in as much description as possible and highlighting the descriptions, when it is – in fact –using more description in order to give more clarity, realism, and oomph to the story.
Don’t be described as dense, know the critical density of your descriptions.