The Five Cardinal Sins of Description

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This guest post is by Joseph Bates, whose new book Writing Your Novel From Start to Finish: A Guidebook for the Journey provides the instruction, inspiration, and guidance you need to complete your novel. Bates is the author of Tomorrowland: Stories (Curbside Splendor 2013), and his short fiction has appeared in such journals as The Rumpus, New Ohio Review, Identity Theory, South Carolina Review, Fresh Boiled Peanuts, and InDigest Magazine. He is a consulting fiction editor with Miami University Press and teaches in the creative writing program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Visit him online at www.josephbates.net

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There are two kinds of description that will have your reader waking up his or her spouse to read a line out loud: really good description and really bad. In order to make sure your descriptions fit in the former category rather than the latter, keep an eye out for the following spouse-elbowing sins of descriptive language and do everything in your power to avoid them.

1. Mixed Metaphors

A metaphor involves a relationship between two unrelated things, compared in order to better illuminate one of them, as in “The road of life has many sharp turns” (a bit of a cliché, true, but we’ll take on clichés in just a moment). But when you try to compare one thing to two different things, or try to link one metaphor with another one, what you’ve got is a mixed metaphor, as in, “The road of life is swimming with dangerous alligators,” comparing life to both a road and an alligator pit, I guess. My favorite example of a mixed metaphor comes from Leslie Nielsen as Lt. Frank Drebin in the cinematic masterpiece The Naked Gun: “I’m playing hardball, Ludwig. It’s fourth and fifteen and you’re looking at a full court press.”

 2. Other Ineffective Comparisons

In a metaphor there’s a certain relationship: The two things compared must be unrelated, but they can’t be incongruous. Thus a metaphor becomes problematic when either (1) the two things compared aren’t sufficiently different, or (2) when they’re so different the relationship seems nonsensical. An example of the first kind might be simply, “Her tears were streams of water,” which makes no sense given that her tears are indeed streams, just not the kind with trout in them. To illustrate the second, where the things compared seem not to match in any way, I turn again to a fictional character, this time George Costanza from Seinfeld: “The sea was angry that day, my friends. Like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.”

3. Excessive Description

If your handsome, muscular, confident hero strides assertively and briskly into the dusty, spare, lamplit room, you’ve got a problem with excessive description—specifically, with the overuse of adjectives and adverbs. Inexperienced writers are too often tempted to pile on the modifiers as a shortcut to significant description, though as you see in the example, such piling on is really more distracting than anything else. Some writing teachers will suggest a good rule of thumb is to try to excise adjectives and adverbs from your work altogether, though of course they don’t mean this literally. What they mean is, if you’re vigilant in keeping control over adjectives and adverbs, the ones that make it in will be there for a reason.

4.Abusing Your Thesaurus

Does your character imbibe superabundant measures of energizing decoction? Or does he simply drink too much coffee? The simplest, most precise way of saying something is always the best way, whether you’re being literal or poetic. (In fact, figurative language requires the most precision of all.) So by all means, buy a good thesaurus and stick it on the shelf, but only reach for it when you’re stuck for the best way of saying something and need a nudge. Likewise, there’s no reason to have your character strut, stride, amble, jog, or lurch if he can simply walk, or to have him exhort, exclaim, interrupt, groan, bark, or whine if he can simply say. Using such overly demonstrative verbs when simpler ones would do only makes your character look like a collection of tics rather than a person.

 5. Clichés

Clichés are the poetry of the uninspired, a way of making connections and comparisons between unlike things without having to make the effort. But clichés are also insidious, and the thing that makes them insidious is the very thing that makes them clichés in the first place: The more accepted and widely used the cliché, the less likely we are to recognize it as one. We begin to think that the cliché itself has meaning.

Unfortunately, there’s no simple rule for spotting clichés in your work; the only way to spot them is to be diligent in searching them out. But once you’ve found them, there are ways of rehabilitating them, looking at what the clichés are attempting to do and then finding a fresh approach to accomplish that.

Chelsea Henshey is an associate editor for Writer’s Digest Books. Follow her on Twitter @ChelseaLHenshey

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