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DESCRIBING THINGS

December 2, 2020

            I’ve discussed several aspects of description here at Fred Central, but this one pertains specifically to objects, sounds, smells, rather than people or locations.

            Quite often on the forums lately, I’ve seen questions like “How do I describe…”

            While I consider that a legitimate research question most of the time, once in a while, these queries veer into the creative realm. When it does, I don’t like answering because then it gets into writing the story for the author, which is another subject.

FAVORITE EXAMPLE

            There’s a weird sound that’s hard to describe because it’s not something one can easily compare it to anything familiar. In more than one book and magazine article from the distant past, I’ve heard the sound a UFO makes described as like cellophane being peeled off a roll.

            Have you ever actually peeled cellophane off a roll before?

            If you peeled say…plastic wrap off a roll, would it make the same sound?

            Hmmm…

            What about wax paper, or aluminum foil, or that new sticky plastic self-sealing stuff?

            In other words, does it HAVE to be cellophane?

THE VAGUARIES OF DESCRIPTION

            Smells are a good example.

            The pie smelled like rhubarb but looked like apple.

            Oh…kay.

            How many of you have ever smelled or even know what rhubarb is?

            Out of my relatively long time on this earth, while I know what rhubarb is, have seen it plenty in the grocery store, I have yet to taste or smell it (that I know of). As old as I am, I couldn’t tell you what rhubarb smells like if it slapped me in the face.

            So much for that description.

            Sounds.

            It sounded like a car horn honking.

            Okay, generally, that’s fine except in what context?

            If that sound is critical, as in a clue in a mystery story, then which car horn?

            Do all car horns sound alike?

            I think not.

            What model car?

            European car horns sound a lot different than American car horns. European car horns are usually more of a beep than a honk.

            Different model American car horns sound different.

            Color.

            The green house trim contrasted with the brown walls.

            Maybe that’s not important in itself. However, what if it is? What shades are the green and the brown? Most writers will add in the color tones.

            Now, here’s the tricky part.

            How many readers know their color tones or even care?

            Hunter green (a dark green).

            Dark brown (how dark is the brown).

            Cerulean blue (a mid-dark blue).

            Ebony black (a tautology).

RELATING DESCRIPTION TO THE FAMILIAR

            When you relate description to the familiar, you have to keep in mind that the familiar you are using is YOUR familiar. You have to consider your reader’s familiar. Generally, they’re the same, but not always. You can assume to a point. A lot of times when I have read a description, I assume an image in my mind that may not be what the author sees. It’s probably similar, but may not be at all. It’s my reality versus the authors.

            As a writer, when we come up with these descriptions, we have to assume a certain education and experience level from our readers. What we shouldn’t do is veer too far into the realm of the bizarre.

            Now, for you literary writers, I don’t even have to say this means straying into a full page or chapter description of something simple when a few words will do.

ONE MORE EXAMPLE

            Though this one is about a person, it still holds true.

            I’ve said time and again, I don’t like to describe my characters in relation to celebrities. In fact, most of my characters I don’t describe at all or very little. I’ve gone into the reasons why many times here on my site.

            I made one exception and have kept it as sort of a running joke.

            The hero (MC) from my Gold series, Detach I’ve described as looking like the infamous (and lucky for us) dead former leader of Russia, Vladimir Lenin, but with hair. Those that see him for the first time and are familiar with history say he sort of looks like either Lenin with hair, or some crazed biker with tattoos.

            Now, I got the idea for Detach from a lot of places, but the image of him came from a factory worker I once knew of where I was working when I original wrote the manuscript. The guy, which I never knew personally, always reminded me of Lenin, but with hair. At the time, I thought it was a great idea, so I incorporated that into the story. The real guy has no idea.

            Now for the clincher. Years later, when I did some research and looked up the real Lenin, I saw a short movie clip of him disguised with a wig on. I was shocked. He looked nothing like what I pictured. He looked nothing like Detach! My whole image shattered.

            What did I do?

            Nothing.

            Once in a while, I still see some guy with long hair and a goatee and moustache and tattoos, and you know what? He still reminds me of Lenin. He also still reminds me of the “image” of Detach. Yet neither of them look like what the real Lenin actually looked like with hair.

            How many other people have seen that short clip of Lenin with a wig on?

            Probably not many unless they’re history buffs or maybe watch a lot of the History Channel.

            Another thing is that I wanted my hero to be the complete opposite of what the real Lenin was like. I think I did that.

SUMMARY

            Description is in the mind of the beholder, to borrow part of a phrase.

            When you describe something, it’s always best to use the most familiar way to describe something so the most people will “get it.” Maybe not everyone will, but hey, you can’t please everyone. You have to toss it out there and hope for the best. Also keep in mind that not everyone is on the same wavelength as you are.

            Happy writing!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2020 12:59 pm

    Sometimes describing sounds works if you can spell that sound out. In one of my stories I had a humorous scene involving a fax machine. “The fax machine proudly spit out its final transmission with a chummy little ‘ernk’.”

    • December 5, 2020 1:47 pm

      Dee,

      That’s a great description! Often, you just have to go with it. While not everyone can get it, some will so just go with it. I’ve been around plenty of FAXes and I’ve heard everything from silent to sounds I can’t even begin to describe. ‘ernk’ is good enough for me!

      Fred

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