Man Is Blue Good: How (Not!) To Utilize Descriptive Language!
I know what you’re thinking. I know, because I’m a psychic parasite that lives in your mind. I’m not even real. But that’s beside the point and is a blog post for another day.
What you’re thinking is, “Chuck, oh ye sublime master of all things wordly, your post yesterday on description only helps those who already know how to handle description in their prose! What about us poor gibbering lunatics who simply don’t know where to begin? My fiction all takes place in the same gray realm, with faceless automatons and overcast skies! I’m covered in cake frosting and feces! How did I get here?”
I don’t know how you got here. It doesn’t matter. You’re here now. Let me hold you for a while. We’ll rock back and forth. I’ll coo. You’ll burble. I’ll inappropriately touch you.
And then I’ll tell you how (not!) to utilize descriptive language, my lost little puppies.
1: Descriptive Language Is The Awesomest Aftertaste
Back to cake frosting for a minute. Descriptive language is just like the icing on a cake. And what do we do with cake icing? We eat that shit last. We savor it. You have this whole hunk of frankly indigestible cake — dry as a desert vagina — and nobody wants that. That’s why we cover it with fucking frosting. If I had to eat a brick, I’d want that brick to be covered in sugar, plain and simple. I wouldn’t lick the sugar off and then eat the brick! What am I, suffering under the yoke of a terrible brain disease? So, assuming that descriptive language is the buttercream that covers your wretched hunk of unpalatable prose, you best save that for last.
So, don’t open with description or setting. Start with dialogue. Offer no context. Proceed through the action. And then, at the end of a chapter — describe.
The protagonist has just jumped through an inter-dimensional portal in his basement and he’s chased by a pack of scissor-wielding robots, boom. Stop. Pull back from the action. Think of this as the denoument (pronounced: “day-doo-doo-douche”) of the chapter. Now is the time to talk about a lamp he passed. What do his sexy track pants look like? Orange-racing stripe? Got it. Do the scissors in the robots’ arthritic claws have a brand? I like Fiskars. Mostly because of the name. “Fiskars” rhymes with whiskers, which is not inappropriate, since I often use their scissors to cut the whiskers off of cats so they bump into walls and doorframes. Hilarity ensues!
2: Descriptive Language Is Your Rock Star Moment
See this dude? He is a goddamn rock star. He has no cares in this life. He exists, unfettered to your human mores and norms.
It’s because he knows all about how to let go, to let his music overtake him, to become one with the rock.
That’s what you gotta do. Or, to refocus, what’s cooler — a little drum fill-in, or a 70-minute drum solo epic? You know the answer. Go epic. Booda-budda-snare-snare-crash-buddudda-buddudda-buddudda-tom-tom-tom-cowbell-bash-crash-smash-boo-bam! Go big or go home, geek!
How does that translate to your writing?
Descriptive language is your time to shine. It is your 70-minute drum solo epic. “Brevity is the soul of wit?” Fuck you, cliche! I got a new cliche for you: “Brevity is the… sole… piece of shit! Or something!” Smear that on the inside of your medical facemask and inhale. I’ll get that on t-shirts and bumper stickers just to impress my wisdom upon you.
Go on at length. Fill a page with a firm, unyielding block of descriptive language. You know what’s super-cool? That clock radio by the antagonist’s nightstand. Even cooler? The fake rhododendron next to it. Describe them. Describe them with all the words you can conjure from your stupid brain. What color is the clock radio? How many little teeny-tiny holes comprise its internal speaker? You think the electric cord isn’t important? You fool. It’s terribly important! How will the reader know where the clock radio gets its power? The reader will assume, “Oh, holy shit, this must be a magical clock radio. If I am left without critical information, I am forced — forced! — to assume that it is powered by some kind of electromagnetic unicorn voodoo.” Suddenly, wham. Your detective story just became a fantasy adventure, all because you were too lazy to describe the electrical cord? C’mon. This is bush league stuff.
Plus, giant, ceaseless tracts of descriptive language will get you super-laid. Super-laid. The genitals will rain from the skies upon you.
Embrace your rock star. Make that clock radio your own personal Stairway to Heaven / Hotel California hybrid baby. Rock out to its squalls and squeals.
3: Descriptive Language Exists In Its Own Precious Vacuum
I’ve heard rumor that some writers think that you should be spare in writing dialogue, that you should endeavor to make it organic part of the entire process, that you should incorporate it into the action and ensure that is — ZZzzzZZzzz. Huh? What? Whooza? Your what hurts?
That advice is useless to you. You’re better served punching yourself in the neck and balls for two hours. Sure, some writers say that. Some writers also write scat-laden love letters to a chick named Nora Barnacle.
No, what you need to remember is that your prose descriptions are a precious thing. Like a dead Dodo, stuffed and put on display by the most gifted of taxidermists. It should be separate from the rest of the text, called out and pointed to. You’re not seriously considering ruining all that hard work by letting it touch all your foul, tainted dialogue, are you? You might as well take a plate of foie gras and stick it back up the goose’s ass before eating it. C’mon.
4: Descriptive Language Works Best When It Makes No Sense
Emily Dickinson doesn’t make any sense. I mean, look at this –
My nosegays are for captives;
Dim, long-expectant eyes,
Fingers denied the plucking,
Patient till paradise.
To such, if they should whisper
Of morning and the moor,
They bear no other errand,
And I, no other prayer.
Do you know what that means?
What the hell is she talking about?
What is a “nosegay?” (I mean, besides a prejudicial epithet — tsk, tsk, Emily Dickinson. With that hair I would’ve thought you’d have been far more progressive, even for an attic-bound dust-collecting shut-in. Plus, she still calls black people “moors.”) Who cares? Emily Dickinson is popular as shit! You can’t throw a stone and not hit an English professor who doesn’t get a little moist at teaching an Emily Dickinson class. (Even better? The fact that most of poems can be easily read to the Gilligan’s Island theme song.) So, you want to be a classic writer? Then write like that. Any and all descriptions should be entirely an abstract mushy broth of poetic gobbledygook. Heck, you want to go one better, feel free to mimic the writing of e.e. cummings, who was so rad he didn’t even need to capitalize or use traditional punctuation:
Takes your breath away, doesn’t it? Clowns? Baboons? Turds? That, my friends, is art, and you would be wise to mimic it. Me, I just take random e.e. cummings and Emily Dickinson poems, and I “remix” them (remix culture is big, what with mash-ups and all) into my own prose. One day, with this in my arsenal, I will be a bestselling author. You can be, too.
5: Descriptive Language Abides By No Man’s Law
Dude, seriously, e.e. cummings is a great example of how you don’t need to learn rules for shit. I know, some people will whine and blather and say something like, “But he was a poet, and he learned how to abide by the rules before he broke them.” Yeah, so? Oh, so we should reward him because he was slow and stupid? Dick that. Skip the middle man. I don’t need to know the law before I rob a 7-11 and clothesline some dude off his Vespa scooter for my sweet-ass getaway, but that didn’t stop me from breaking it all over the place. Ka-pow.
So, when you describe something, just take a deep breath, and then just let it all out. And with the breath, slip free all the words you can think of about the thing, person or situation you are describing. Go on at length. Run-on sentences are not only fine, but encouraged. Adverbs? Fuck yes. Adverbs are like the tail of the pig — that little ‘ly’ is the best eating on the whole damn animal. You can make words up. You can ramble. It’s okay. The reader will be along for the ride, because the reader is a drunken mule who will follow a strong master. A good master writes like this:
“The clock radio was forsooth red and nature’s claw and tooth and quickly swiftly timidly sat on the cornerstone of the keystone table and clown baboon turd Gilligan’s Island pop pop pop beep beep beep LCD display tearing profoundly holes through my mindfibers.”
I mean, that’s just a taste. You want to do that for like, 15 paragraphs, easy.
6: Descriptive Language Is Like A Sad Donkey Without A Home
No, that doesn’t make any sense. That’s the point. It’s metaphor. Metaphor is the writer’s coolest tool, because you don’t actually have to say anything at all. A metaphor is basically when you’re comparing two unlike things. How fun is that? Given that the world is home to an infinity of things, you basically have infinity times two at your disposal.
Plus, metaphors don’t need to make sense. You’re not actually drawing a meaningful connection — you’re just tying two totally random concepts together with a tenuous thread! It’s like a game.
Examples might include:
- “The clock radio is like a dead pig on a slow boat.”
- “The man leapt in the air like a pair of broken binoculars.”
- “Emily Dickinson is a monkey toupee.”
- “Lamp equals oblivion.”
See? I didn’t say a damn thing, but I said it awesomely. You can write entire paragraphs in metaphor. In fact, that’s my official recommendation. Listen, regular words are boring. “The box is red.” Seriously? Who cares? “The blonde gentleman sipped a steaming espresso.” Yawn. Wake me up when it gets fucking bad-ass.
Instead, try: “The box is a blood-dimmed tide,” or, for the second sentence, “The Nordic broomstick drank from the cup of nightmares, hot as a dragon’s teat.”
For bonus points, play with cliches. Try to describe an entire scene using only cliches! Publishers love that, because cliches mean money. You can put a cliche on a foam finger or one of those beer hats easy. That’s good money. Don’t shirk good money. Nobody owns cliches. Take them. Plunder their riches.
Vivid language, when overused, delivers a karate punch to the reader’s visual cortex, severely damaging the reader’s ability to do anything but send you money and drugs. That’s every author’s wet dream (a.k.a. “nocturnal emission”), and you know what’ll get you there?
The siren song of constant metaphor, baby.