The limits of description

There are four broad categories of text you can write (exposition, narration, description, and dialogue,) and descriptions are what can give more problems to a fiction or genre writer. To sum up, description isn’t even a good kind of text. We tolerate it because it is required, but the least there is, the better, for reasons I hope will become clear in a moment.

Textual versions of visual phenomena are not good conveyors of information, at least not the kind of information most novice writers believe they should convey (raw visual data.)

That is not a surprise. All human languages have a strong social bias since their original purpose is social— not scientific, philosophical, or literary. We have massive vocabularies to describe every detail of our social lives and readily create new terms for new circumstances and fads. But look around your desk or wherever you might be and see how many words you have for the shapes, colors, or even the specific name of objects you have lying around. How many types of lamps (or goats, or mountains, or kitchenware, or cabinets, or clouds…) can you describe? And what would even be the point in that?

The good news is, in a narrative, description kills the flow of the story, so you can ignore most descriptions and avoid the problem altogether. Yet… not completely, naturally. And for writers of fantastic vistas and distant, exotic worlds, some kind of description is mandatory. The thing to understand is that of those four types of text, description doesn’t stand as an equal with the others (neither does dialogue); it exists to serve them and amplify them. “What do I want to achieve with this?” should be the question writers should ask themselves before writing any lengthy or important description. If it has no purpose beyond itself, consider deleting it.

In this post, the first of two parts, I will try to explain the limits of description, why it tends to fail, how it relates and gets confused with what other visual mediums do, and a common mistake to avoid. In the second part, I’ll give you one strategy to combine description with narration, which will also tell you how to properly construct long sentences and help you achieve a superior degree of syntactical mastery.

Now, see these two sentences:

“A spaceship is flying.”
“A million spaceships are flying.”

What’s the difference? One word. In the first, there’s just a spaceship, while in the second, there is a million. Aside from that, both sentences are equally boring and require the same amount of effort to write, read, or comprehend. The second may intrigue you because it seems strange that there might be so many spaceships. Most likely, your brain may have started to ask some questions about that and what it implies for a setting where such a thing happens, but as the sentence gives you no answer or extra information, it is equally barren of content.

On the other hand, if this were a movie, the second could be a jaw-dropping scene with up to a million computer-generated spaceships and a budget like the entire GDP of a small African country. Or it could be seizure-inducing CGI crap. But the point is that, in a movie, that “sentence” becomes something that, inherently, can be engaging, fascinating, informative, or have aesthetic value. On the other hand, words have little value most of the time compared to what a visual artist could do with them. You need something more than just saying there are a million spaceships to make it impressive. And that something doesn’t have to be a description.

Description with words is what you do to dead things or to things you have objectified, as when a zoologist gives the dimensions of an animal or a furniture catalog of the cabinets it is advertising. Fine for those things, since that’s their purpose, but not for literature. Keep in mind, though, that those types of text usually are accompanied by pictures or drawings.

Dimensions, shapes, value, and colors in words have meager inherent meaning. And even attaching an enhancing adjective, like “monstrous” or “huge,” might do little to improve the situation. So what if the giant a hero has come across is four-meters tall, or its eyes are red? That “four” might scare an eight-year-old reader who has never heard of such things, but for a more veteran reader, the writer might just as well have said it was as tall as a hundred men for all the effect that might do. If you want to impress people with the size or visual aspect of things, you should pick up painting, not writing.

For genre writers of the fantastic, this is a critical point as their stories are filled with horrifying creatures and outlandish events in a medium that doesn’t convey those things well, at least not using the modern understanding of descriptions.

Writers know this, whether they are aware of it or not, which is why they resort to all manner of tricks to try to give their words a more fearsome effect. Yet they think in terms of visual effect, not semantic or symbolic. Is there any monster living in the pages of current fiction that doesn’t “roar”? But roaring in words does nothing to scare or impress (and, to be fair, thanks to overuse, neither does in movies or video games). This is not a movie where sound effects and camera angles can be manipulated to shock or surprise the audience. On a page, it’s just a word—and not a very good one.

Most descriptive statements do not convey any strong emotion… unless paired with something that does. After all, there’s no point in saying that a certain monster or savage animal roars if everyone present doesn’t seem to mind it that much. If nobody freezes, cowers in fear, or flees, then so what?

A good writer should be able to, given the right context and using the right sentences (notice I didn’t say “words,” for meaning is built with sentences, not words), make the appearance of a rabid raccoon a terrifying experience. Making it ten meters long will not help a bit.

So, not only is the range of words (and here I am indeed using “words,” not “sentences,” for these are infinite) available for descriptions narrow, its utility is doubtful anyway. Most importantly, a misplaced, intruding description can easily kill the flow of a story. Nothing stops a perfectly good narration like an unnecessary stop to describe a new character’s hair, clothes, or shoes. Do you, in real life, even notice such things? And if you do, is it because of their inherent quality as visual phenomena, or for what they imply (wealth, status, or beauty) and the emotions they might evoke (attraction, jealousy, envy, feelings of inadequacy, etc.)?

If, on the other hand, such connections to real emotions are not stated, what you end up with is fundamentally just a list of items. We rarely notice it because these lists are written horizontally, but they are nonetheless lists.

The most common type of unnecessary description is 2 or 3 sentences, each dedicated to one of the object’s salient traits or parts. If you were to write each sentence as a unique paragraph, you would notice that it does, indeed, look like a list. So, for a building, you might first read a description of the façade first, then the roof, and finally the windows, and all start and end as independent thoughts, cut-off from the previous sentences. The first sentence would be “The façade…”, the second “The roof…”, and the third, “The windows…”. That’s not narrative but a list, and like the items on a list, they could be rearranged, which is not a good sign in narrative.

Despite referencing the same object, such sentences are not really linked together, neither grammatically nor logically. When a new sentence starts, you notice it because there’s a mental stop. The flow of information is stopped and redirected, the narrative momentum aborted to move to a different, quite arbitrary, piece of the object being dissected.

If the description is too long, this can feel like an intrusion or as if time had stopped. Yet since writing is a linear medium, time cannot really stop as there’s always an implied forward momentum—which the description just killed. Unlike in a visual medium, like in a painting, in writing, one cannot easily convey a gestalt feeling, like the psychological unity of a visual impression. It’s not like watching a landscape (real or painted,) when first there is an immediate response to its totality. You can’t do that with words, yet modern writers keep trying to paint landscapes with words, and that’s how you get hundreds of attempts at describing the effect of shimmering water at dawn or sunset.

Suppose you try to paint with words your beautiful sunset (something you shouldn’t do.) If so, there’s the risk of going from one corner of the imagined landscape to the next one, building up the description as if it were possible to give the idea of an aesthetic impression linearly, by addition.

A similar problem arises when the dissecting descriptions of an object are shown before the effects of such an impression. Now, that might seem reasonable because cause (the visual phenomena) should go before the consequence (the human reaction,) but… not really, or not always. For example, a sudden encounter with a bulky, fearsome thug can be an entire paragraph to describe his tattoos, earrings, and boots before the visceral reaction of fear from everyone present is even mentioned—which would most likely instantaneous. Replace thug with monster, and you get that common horror/fantasy scene where the effect of a jump scare is attempted in writing, but after two paragraphs describing the “sudden” monstrous appearance, the reader is anything but scared.

Keep in mind that in writing, a description is not understood as in a painting and information is processed much slowly, linearly rather than in parallel. It has a temporal dimension that it’s very hard to suppress. So, if it takes you two pages to describe something, it will be hard to convince the reader that it was just an instant, the equivalent of a few frames in a movie and that nothing else has happened during that time. And it will be impossible if the scene where that happens has an implied sense of urgency.

In any event, raw visual information is never the first thing anyone perceives. I mean, your brain does, unconsciously, but as a writer, you are talking as a person to another person, not as a disembodied brain to another brain-in-a-jar. Ideally, you’d write the description and the effect together, in the same sentence, as to imply a unity of perception and emotion. That’s not an easy thing to do.

There are a few solutions to get around this problem, but none are easy or free. The first and most radical is, quite simply, to discard descriptions. It’s a bit extreme, but not without value or tradition to back it up. In some ancient works, descriptions are almost unheard of. Expositions and narration take precedence. The belief that you need description is a modern convention and is usually false. Those scenes that allegedly seem to happen in a void are rarely due to a lack of lyrical descriptions but because the author actually forgot to tell you where the action is happening or forgot to state a transition from one place to another or the passage of time. If the scene is set on a beach, at night, and it’s raining, you can just say that—no need to describe much else unless it adds something.

Most of the other solutions involve “density of meaning” in one way or another, whether trying to cram more description into less space (so as to avoid the listing phenomenon) or removing the least meaningful descriptions to focus on the few that matter, or replacing an entire sentence with a well-chosen adjective. All are valid. Here, the point to remember is that a meaningful description almost always finds its strength by something outside itself.

I haven’t mentioned what kind of narrator is used here because I assumed an “omniscient” third-person narrator because it’s the one that gives you more freedom. If the narrator is tied to a particular character, your description will be more relevant to that character’s state of mind but at the cost of much less freedom since you are bound by what the character sees right now and what they know. There’s a high risk of a list-like description in that case, as that kind of deep POV tends to make the narrator into a visual parser rather than a conveyor/creator of meaning. And, quite simply, sometimes you need to say something meaningful but that the character doesn’t know, believe, or care about right now.

If we use the crude but effective criteria that a good text is memorable, descriptions are rarely good text because the famous quotes from almost all books are never descriptions. And if they are, it’s because they are similes, metaphors, or analogies. This strange idea that you can create “vivid” and “memorable” descriptions using precise language as if there’s some value in piling up words for visual phenomena is silly. Pretty much every memorable description is a metaphor or has some outrageous turn of phrase that goes against literalist description of visual objects (or any other sense,) like when Gabriel Garzía Márquez described the river stones by some town like “shinny […] giant prehistoric eggs.” Notice, though, that such a description is the Narrator speaking and coming up with a creative analogy, not the result of an accumulation of visual data.

Let me reiterate because I know this is an outrageous statement: words for visual data are either neutral or worthless and carry no inherent meaning or emotion. The image the writers are trying to “paint” might, but not the words. A sunset might be highly aesthetic as a visual experience, and it might be beatiful within the writer’s mind, but words are just words. In fact, since the readers probably have their own mental images for “beautiful sunsets,” extra words describing your own might be unnecessary—you can let the reader’s brain and imagination do the work for you.

That’s it for today. In the next part, I will tell you about lexical complexity and the generation of long, meaningful sentences, something that might help you reduce 5-sentence-long descriptions into elegant, seemingly growing with an inner life of their own, one or two-sentence-long descriptions.

2 thoughts on “The limits of description

  1. Mary

    Of course, you can do things with description that can’t be done with raw visual data.

    Raw visual data can put one woman in a red dress and another in a white one. But a writer can put one in a rose-red dress and the other in a bone-white one; or a blood-red dress and a lily-white one; or a ruby-red dress and a pearl-white one. The colors in the readers’ mind may be very different, but that’s not what’s carrying the freight.


  2. mrsizer

    This is a very good point that I had not considered consciously. I was just reading an “epic fantasy” that was trying way too hard to be “epic” with overly done descriptions of everything the characters stumbled across. It drove me crazy. Now I understand why.


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