Playing by the Rules with Description

Narrative is tricky stuff.

Writing teachers throw all kinds of rules at us. Show, don’t tell. Vary the length of your sentences. Show, don’t tell. Adverbs are taboo. Show, don’t tell. Oh, did I mention showing and not telling?

Fantasy writers have the hardest job of all, it seems. When it comes to description, not only are we not allowed to tell rather than show (or use double-negatives), we also are forbidden from using certain narrative tools that help us get the job done. Why? Because some of those descriptions have no place in our fantasy worlds.

“Then Ramilon parked his Corvette by the Waterfall Gate.” (credit)

Let me show you. (Ha, look who’s following the rules!) Say I am writing a scene that takes place just after a battle. Elkay is collapsed beneath a tree, worn out and quite discouraged, when his wife Ivora comes to find him and bring him back to safety. Elkay sees her coming and is overjoyed that someone still cares about him. She looks just like an angel-

HOLD IT! screams the internal editor. No angels! You’re writing in deep POV, which means that you have to step into Elkay’s leathery, mud-covered sabatons and write according to his rules. Elkay has never even heard of the concept of angels; how could he compare Ivora to one?

As much as I hate it, the internal editor is right for once. Elkay doesn’t know what an angel is, nor a demon, nor any such being from the real world. For crying out loud, he doesn’t even know what fantastical creatures like svartalfar would be. When writing a fantasy, I suddenly cannot use the familiar expressions that I use every day without thinking about it. And do you know what? That’s a good thing.

Why? Because when we can’t use all of the common expressions, similes, and other narrative tricks that we love so much, we are forced to come up with our own, and it makes our stories that much more original. If I may steal someone else’s originality to explain, C.S. Lewis puts it best:

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?”

Some (most) of these familiar expressions have lost their meaning through overuse. The first time a person uses an expression, his or her friends appreciate the wit and begin incorporating these new figures of speech into their own vocabulary. Then the friends of those friends pick up on it, and then their friends, and so on, until the expression is nothing but trite. It’s just another meaningless phrase among the portmanteaus and colloquialisms of the English language.

Admit it- a few moments ago, when I was talking about my imaginary scene, you expected me to say that I had to step into Elkay’s shoes, didn’t you? But, while you knew what expression I was using, you didn’t even think about what the expression really meant- not until I used an archaic word like sabatons that forced you to look twice.

Meh… who would want to come up with original words to describe this, anyway? (credit)

I’m not saying we should look to startle our readers with our word choice; too often startling them will take them right out of the story. However, I am saying that we should be glad that all these expressions are now off-limits for us. Other writers, like authors of contemporary romance novels or general fiction, have to work harder to eliminate trite expressions from their stories; fantasy writers automatically must come up with their own.

And what if you don’t write fantasy? You can still learn a lesson: eliminate those overused words and expressions from your work anyway. Be original! You may have to look harder, but any writer worth two cents can come up with new ways to tell his or her story.

Yes, sometimes it takes a little bit of brainpower. I did indeed sigh over the lack of the term “angel,” and I did have to describe instead how Ivora looked. I had to show her dark hair over her white dress, her soft round face, her sad smile that made Elkay feel less lonely. But as Lewis would say, when the readers finished reading that description, they could only say, “Ah, Elkay’s guardian angel!”

You know, I think it’s fun to use my imagination instead of asking my readers to please do my jobs for me.

What expressions and words are off-limits in your stories? Have you ever invented your own? 

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14 thoughts on “Playing by the Rules with Description

  1. A fantastic read for a subject which will never die. I just completed re-writing a chapter to what, I believed, was a near finished product and took with me for critique at a writers club. I hope I didn’t look as stricken as I felt when I heard several people say, “Too much telling, not enough showing.” Back to the drawing board.

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    • Oh, man! I know that feeling. But stick with it; I remember reading how C.S. Lewis always had the same complaints about Tolkien’s work, and LotR turned out spectacularly for it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes. Yes. Yes. YES! This is right on! The easy thing to do is to use clichès, but if you use your own descriptions and comparisons, your writing instantly becomes more interesting and engaging. I know when I’m reading a book, and the author makes a great comparison, I stop and think, “Wow, that was a great description!”
    And the C. S. Lewis quote? Yes again! 🙂

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  3. I detest stories that show instead of telling. Consequently, I will not be deterred by any of your tyrannic commandments from writing in omnisaciewnt manner and tell instead of showing.

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    • I think that you misunderstand my article. My point was that some expressions- that is, the tools for telling, not showing- are meaningless from overuse, and that we should either invent new expressions for ourselves or else tell the readers exactly what we mean. You can tell or show as much or as little as you want; I am simply sharing an original approach to both.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. I’ve had trouble with writing a fantasy story and having to describe French windows and for obvious reasons not being able to say French windows. It can be hard, but it does force the writer to be more creative.

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  5. A great rule I once read somewhere about description was to never — or rarely, anyway ‘use description as lists’. Instead, pick up the most interesting thing and only mention that. It helps me keep my writing interesting. 😉

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    • Sorry I missed your comment! I’ve heard the same advice, and it’s been useful for me so far. I think that’s what they call “the defining characteristic.”

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