Thursday, December 18, 2008

Descriptive Words: Too Much of a Good Thing

When you've been reviewing submissions as long as I have, you begin to identify trends. Oft repeated advice like "show don't tell" and using dialogue to move a story forward usually take a while to catch on, but once they do, it is with a vengeance, until some writers end up overdoing it.

Take "show don't tell." Some writers now won't "tell" you a thing. Characters don't cry. Instead, they "show" us puddles forming in their eyes, then overflowing and rolling down cheeks.

The trend I'm seeing lately is over-use of descriptive language. Writers who take time to analyze what they read notice that literary writers create images through careful word choice and the use of simile and metaphor. However, many submitters work so hard on these descriptions that the words overpower the image or mood the writer wants to create.

Starting Over by Nate Haken is a recent Story of the Week in Narrative. Notice the imagery created by this description of how this character (whose considered a little "crazy") lights his cigarette.

Rudagi selected a burning stick and shook it up and down, tracing lines into the blackness of my retina. He smacked it against the ground, throwing sparks across the sky, smothering the flame. Then he brought the glowing end to his face and lit a cigarette.

Anyone who has ever seen the glowing end of stick shaken up and down in the dark understands those tell-tale lines the light leaves on the retina. This description is simple but clear and most of all, no reader––other than perhaps a writer trying to learn her craft––would notice the specific words. Instead, the reader will have an image in mind, one that not only creates a picture but provides some insight into the character.

Now here's a similar scene as it might be written by someone trying to "sound" like a writer:
Blue and yellow flames like cat tongues licked the stick, pronged like a tuning fork, until the tip glowed the color of a freshly picked orange. Whipping it in the sultry night air, Alfonso drew wreaths of light in the charcoal darkness, then whacked the ground, causing one prong to snap off and bounce into the crackling flames while sparks flew like stars into the inky sky.
At first read this may sound very literary, but let's analyze it. First, think of all the pictures this one paragraph brings to mind: Cats, a tuning fork, a freshly picked orange, ink, wreaths, charcoal, and stars. It's like trying to read a book in Grand Central Station. There's way too much vying for the reader's attention. Second, images like cat tongues, tuning forks, and oranges don't really relate to a campfire scene and therefore pull the reader out of the moment. Finally, unlike Haken's paragraph, here we learn in great detail about the stick and fire, but hardly anything about the man who will be the main character.

Sometimes I see entire stories written in this purple prose and I end up feeling like I've run a marathon. Often, though, it's just the first paragraph that reads this way. Once the writer finds his/her own voice instead of trying to imitate someone else's the story can go on to be quite good. In this case writers have probably read so much about editors judging a story by the first few lines that they feel pressured to make a good impression. Unfortunately, the result is just the opposite.

So what can writers do to keep from falling into this trap? My first suggestion is not to work so hard at finding the right word and/or simile or metaphor. Often first drafts are weak, perhaps overusing the verb to be, and we want to go back and make revisions. That's great, but if you find yourself hitting the thesaurus for every other word, it's not your voice you'll be writing in. The same goes if you find yourself straining for a simile to describe a color, scent, texture. If it doesn't spring to your mind, chances are it will read like a stretch. Also, make sure your similes remain in context. If you are describing a beach scene in summer, a desert simile might work but not a frozen tundra.

Lastly a word about metaphor. A character can fall into a "black hole" of depression or flounder in "an ocean of fear," but you don't want them doing both in the same sentence or even the same paragraph.

To finalize my point, let me end with a simile. Similes and metaphors are like herbs in cooking, they should blend together to enhance the flavor, not overpower it.


Angie Ledbetter said...

Good post here, Nannette.

Embee said...

Very useful advice...thanks!

sapheyerblu said...

Great post, Nannette. There is a fine line between being over done, and under done. It's that space in between that makes a good story great.


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