I’m pretty sure I didn’t properly cover this last time. Also, I’m going to be taking a hiatus – yes, even though I was late getting this out – until the start of October, for medical reasons. Sorry?
One of the biggest problems I see in a lot of writing is the meaninglessness of the descriptions given. Now, there are plenty of common descriptions which are evocative – or at least meaningful – and conjure an image on their own; everyone, for instance, will be able to picture roughly the same thing when the prose tells them that “Lord Doomdoom laughed maniacally and pulled the lever”. But what about “Princess Prettypink smiled. She had a charming smile”? Different people find different things charming. Saying that a smile is charming, but nothing else, doesn’t actually tell the reader anything (except that the author wants them to root for this character). A wide grin, with all teeth showing, can be charming – but so can a bashful little lift of a corner of the mouth, while biting the bottom lip. Which did Prettypink do? Or perhaps her smile was neither of those. There’s no way to tell, and no way to clearly conjure an image.
Meaningless, vague and cliché, descriptions do not describe the people, places, and things in a specific story. They – at best – conjure up a generic and hazy form. The charming smile on Princess Prettypink is not Prettypink’s smile. It is the same, generic smile that every badly written heroine wears at some point or another. There is nothing of her in it and, thus, nothing of it connects to her.
When you’re telling the readers about the people in your story (i.e. prose) you want them to imagine the people in your story. Not generic people. Now, obviously, I’m not saying you should never use descriptions like these – if every action was described in depth then every short story would be longer than A Song of Ice and Fire (and if you described a thing the same, unique, way every time the thing is mentioned; the reader will eventually tear their own hair out in frustration). The point is that it’s not good to only use generic descriptions. Real people all do similar things very differently. Ask yourself, for example, how your character smiles, not what is considered to be a charming smile.
Specificity, when correctly used, tells the readers far more about who a character is – and grounds the character in a realistic-feeling world – far more than generic or vague descriptions do. For example, there is technically nothing wrong with “Martha put a hand beneath her chin”, but it also doesn’t really describe anything. Palm down will indicate a different mood than palm up, and different again from the thinker-esque position of the chin on the fist and the palm inward – and that’s not even getting into the different ways finger position can be indicative.
If “Martha put her hand beneath her chin, which tilted her head sideways slightly as she listened,” it tells the reader that she’s got her hand slightly to the side – which is a more comfortable position, and the image it evokes (the tilted head and hand beneath the chin) is one of someone getting comfortable to listen to something they’re only half interested in.
But, if “Martha put her hand beneath her chin and tapped her fingernails against her lower lip”, the readers know that she’s thinking about something – perhaps dramatically to make a point – and that she has no intention of remaining in that position for long, because it’s uncomfortable.
Either way; the reader gets a far clearer picture of Martha than the generic description gives. Here’s another example – which version tells you more about the character?
Peony Prettypink lay in the grass, her long auburn hair around her like a fall of autumn leaves; sometimes brushing against her cheek, and her chest rose and fell gently as she slept.
Peony Prettypink lay haphazardly in the grass. Sunlight glinted off her nibbled toenails whenever she flexed her feet – as though she was walking in her dreams. Her nose twitched when the wind dragged strands of her tangled auburn hair across her face.
The first might be the prettier picture, but it’s a description which could apply to any redhead asleep in some grass. It’s not Prettypink specifically who is sleeping there. The second one is clearly a distinct person.
But it goes beyond just how you describe something. Choosing meaningful descriptions can also be about movements themselves. Why, for instance, automatically have someone settling in to listen put their chin in their hand? Why not say “Martha dropped an elbow to the table and made a loose fist behind her ear as she listened”? Then it becomes Martha, not a vague generic, who is sitting there listening. It grounds the character in the reality of their specific behaviour.
There is so much variety in even the tiniest of human behaviours. It’s a shame that so many authors prefer to stick with generic descriptions that they don’t have to think about to come up with.