More limits of description (II)

Following from the previous post, I was going to jump straight into the next part (the writing of dense, cumulative descriptions), but then I realized that post might have left some points unanswered or not appropriately explained. So, in this post, an intermission of sorts, I will try to show, almost quantifying it if possible, the limits of the “painting with words” approach to descriptive writing.

By “painting with words” I mean the usual and somewhat modern approach of translating a visual reference (might be a mental picture) into words by trying to find the appropriate nouns and adjectives to describe its physical appearance or sensory effect. Notice I said “nouns and adjectives,” which is the issue here since meaningful descriptions are built at the level of the sentence, not the fill-in-the-blanks approach to writing.

This is so common many people might be thinking that that’s how it’s done, and there is no other way of describing things. But there are a lot: similes, metaphor, analogies, allusions, and references, but also focusing on the psychological, emotional, or symbolic impact of things being described. Notice these are all indirect ways of descriptions.

There’s also narration and exposition, of course (but these can’t be easily done with a deep POV.) Even the driest scientific texts know this, which is why when, say, describing the teeth of some predator, the writer doesn’t just say that they are “fangs” big or small, but that the bite of the animal is so strong it can easily snap tree branches the size of an arm or that the jaws keep locked even after the death of the animal (or whatever.) Those two are memorable because they are informative; just attaching the adjective “big” (or variations) says little.

There are very few ways to describe an object directly while, at the same time, being meaningful and memorable. Quite simply, human language is not made that way. I’ll show why by focusing on adjectives, which is the simplest and most common way of building descriptions.

The seven general categories of descriptive adjectives are these: Size, Age/Antiquity, Shape, Color, Origin, Material, Quality. The first six are the important ones for this post.

Direct description of size: There are few words to describe that something is big and even fewer for smallness. Big, large, giant, huge, colossal, enormous, mammoth, titanic, cyclopean, vast, endless…? There are perhaps 10-15 meaningful adjectives for “bigness.” However, there are almost infinite ways to describe size indirectly, even if you restrict yourself to likeness: “… [y] was the size of a [x]”. There are many other approaches, of course: “always the largest man in any room,” “he usually had to lower his head so as not to hit the lintel of most doors,” or whatever you can come up with. Notice that none of those two are descriptions of any real scene or something that is happening right now.

Age/antiquity: Old, ancestral, archaic? Very old? Why not “ancient, from before Atlantis fell” or something else? I don’t want to encourage writing like on Twitter, but there’s a reason people there say, “I’m so old I remember…” (and the interesting bit is what comes after that, of course.) If you restrict yourself to adjectives and the odd adverb, age is virtually impossible to explain meaningfully.

Shape: Although there are quite a few words for geometric shapes, most of them belong to, well, geometry textbooks, not literature. Also, most are unusable for natural objects. Tere’s something lacking in “that strong and shapely, trapezoidal neck.”

Nowhere is more evident the limitations of descriptive language than in the millennia-old literary quest to describe an attractive woman and, especially, a hot one. Not only is the available list of words quite narrow, you also have to keep within the bounds of decent discourse if you don’t want to intrude into porno territory and be called a perv with self-insert fantasies. But, really, the opposite is equally silly. Like, yeah, lady, everyone is gazing at your crimson lips and azure eyes, not your gigantic bazoongas.

Visual arts, at least the Western ones, have no issue with that. As long as you avoid too-direct stares and legs spread open, you can easily paint as many naked chicks as you want and call yourself a sophisticated artist. Now that’s life! But with words? Eh…

Color: I honestly consider most attempts at finding the “right word” for color to be a waste of time. You have the ROYGBIV basic colors, plus browns, black and white, and a few more as well as colors by comparison (“the color of x).” Anything beyond that runs the risk of accidentally crossing that fine line between poetry and nonsense. You start by talking about a cerulean dress rather than blue, and you end up talking about burnt sienna and tangerine flesh tones.

As in painting, there are three basic dimensions in the word “color”. Hue (basic color) but also saturation and value. The latter two are the most important, which is why paintings done by amateurs (who focus on the first quality) tend to be garish. Most realistic colors around you are tinted grays and browns, and there are no specific words for them. So, if you want to describe them, you’ll have to look elsewhere because the answer won’t be in any specific noun.

In most situations, colors are rarely important and have little inherent meaning or symbolism. Aside from obvious tropes like the bad guys dressing in black and the hot seductress in red, there’s little that colors convey. And the basic, saturated ones from the rainbow even less.

Color, probably like the rest of descriptive categories here, usually needs its own modifiers for it to be meaningful. That a red shirt is faded or torn is more important than whether it is red, purple, gree-olive, or indigo. That way, adjectives that, when alone are meaningless, together they seem to become more meaningful (e.g., the sum “old red” is most likely better than its parts.)

Origin: This is one of the most informative categories. Ironically, it is the one that imaginative genres like fantasy and science fiction cannot use. If you specify that a painting or building or custom is French and also mention its age (say, XVII-century,) if you know what those things mean, you get a lot of information. Fantasy settings (and a lot of science fiction) have no shared history or past, or it’s inadequate and, in any event, not very significant for the reader. The French Revolution is a meaningful concept; the Fall of This or That Fictional Empire in Fantasy Setting #234 isn’t unless it links, symbolically or aesthetically, to something we know and can relate to so we can get the reference (like Star Wars did with the Republic and the Empire.)

That is one of the most obvious, yet least acknowledged, fantasy world-building problems (at least as defined post-Tolkien): that their worlds are, in fact, quite empty. But that would be a subject for another post.

Material: Not that it makes much of a difference in most stories and movies since a sword cuts through all of them with the same ease, but it’s still important to known if someone’s armor is iron, leather, or cotton. Although the material quality of the objects around us is quite important, we live (and I will assume that the people who write and read even more so) in very abstracted reality bubbles, and we forget it.

The importance of certain materials, their qualities, and how they feel is something which, I believe, is difficult to explain to a modern reader. Or, rather, it needs to be explained, not just stated. A good example would be jewelry. I suspect that for a young reader in the 1920s reading the pulps, the image of an exotic queen bedecked with jewels could make a strong impact. For us, inundated with such images, as well as how easy it is to find such items (even if only in advertising,) has reduced their value to modern minds. I call this the “sword phenomena” (but there’s something very similar happening with many other things), the result of having seen, played, and read thousands of scenes with people casually swinging swords around like they are sticks.

Perhaps more than with any other category, material requires contrast to be meaningful. If something is hard and strong, it should be juxtaposed with softer and weaker things. If every piece of armor does the same, if a sword works against everything, if there’s no difference between how objects behave due to their material properties, then what’s the point? That, however, is something that is not written at the level of word (i.e., adjectives, nouns, etc.) but entire sentences.

So, in conclusion, we have two dimensions that are quite useless and short in number (size and shape,) one that can barely say anything (Age), one that is bland (Color,) one that can be interesting but a lot of genres can’t use it (Origin,) and one that people might not get (Material.) The huge ancient oblong green Martian aluminum spaceship. Well, that won’t do at all. Not that anybody writes exactly like that, but you get my meaning.

However, all of those adjectives have better versions out there (that you, as a writer, will have to invent,) and it’s the modifier of such adjectives that starts the signification process. It is also not necessary to replace each adjective with a sentence to make a descriptive list (“The spaceship was huge and green… It had been made in Mars… It was made of aluminum…”)

Size can be shown relative to other objects, present or otherwise, metaphorically or emotionally. There are certainly better ways to say that something is old than saying “old.” Color… well, green is just fine if it’s not important. As for the others, it depends on the context, setting, and purpose (if any) of the description.

An easy way to check if an adjective is superfluous is to remove it, and to check its aptness, replace it with another from the same category. If it doesn’t matter whether you remove it or not it means that either you need to add something else or that no description might be needed. If it doesn’t matter if replaced with a word from the same set (quite common with colors,) that can also imply the same, but especially that more needs to be said. The solution to this is not necessarily to find a more specific word within the same set (say, cerulean rather than blue or oak rather than wood) but to add more meaing with an adjective from a different category (faded blue, Islamic green, ancient bronze, etc.) It is the modifier of the modifier (and so on) that gives real meaning.

This should help you fix most simple descriptions that are not important enough to merit their own sentence/paragraph. For when that is needed, in the next post, I’ll give you how I believe it’s possible to come up with dense and long descriptions that don’t feel like lists and that can combine description with narration. However, keep in mind that there is no step-by-step method for that. It’s a highly creative and individual process.

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