Enter The Hyperbowl!
Here it is.
I’m going to give you a pro-tip.
I’m giving it to you for free. It’s how I do. I’m here to help you. Selflessly giving of myself so that you may bathe in wisdom. Sticky, hot wisdom. Just lay back in this clawfoot tub. Ease back. Ease back, or I’ll get the Taser again. Let me cover you in strands of gooey wisdom.
Earlier, I told you How Not To Use Descriptive Language.
Now, I come to you and tell you one little way — a teeny-weenie trick — to approach description in prose.
Since I’m going to be talking about Bradley Denton here in the next week or so (as one of my writing totems), I sat down and started re-reading one of Denton’s novels, the utterly-holy-shit-brilliant Blackburn. And something new occurred to me as I read it (and I’ve read this book probably a dozen times by now): I love the way Denton handles description. It’s spare, but not absent; some authors feel you should not describe a character at all, and allow the reader to fill in the details, but me, I like an author that has a vision of the character and is willing to share it. I just don’t want the author to overshare it.
Denton doesn’t overshare.
Let’s pluck some pieces of description outta the book.
Opening paragraph, from the chapter VICTIM NUMBER TWO:
“Blackburn was surprised that it was so easy. He hadn’t thought he would be able to shoot another man. But here was Number Two trying to pull on his pants. The man was big, and his footfalls shook the telephone on the nightstand. A hole in his stomach pumped dark blood. The blood glistened on the bedsheets, on the floor.”
Or, from VICTIM NUMBER FOUR:
“Blackburn looked hard at the musician’s eyes. The irises were pale blue, and wet. The pupils were like small black olives. The whites were oiled plastic. The capillaries were so red that they stood out in relief.”
Or, from BLACKBURN AND THE CHICKEN-KILLER:
“Jimmy looked. The steers were moving down the slope toward the pond like slobber-nosed tanks.”
Or, from VICTIM NUMBER SEVEN:
“Leo grimaced and spat on the floor of the stockroom. Leo was about 50, and he wore a black toupee. He had lines around his eyes, and liver-colored lips.”
Or, finally, from BLACKBURN PULLS THE TRIGGER:
“The Blazer slowed. The driver’s-side window slid down, and Officer Johnston leaned out. He was wearing mirrored sunglasses. His veined nose seemed to throb.”
Now, I don’t know that Denton and I actually share a descriptive technique here, but I know that the end result is the same. (And further comparison of me to Denton is like comparing a mule-kicked imbecile painting on the barn wall with his own feces to, ohhhh, I dunno, the love-child of Da Vinci and Picasso.)
You want my technique?
You want to shower in my mighty enlightenment?
When I was a kid, I knew the word “hyperbole,” but I did not associate the spoken word with the written word. I thought the written word was pronounced “hyperbowl,” and meant something… well, fuck, I don’t even know what it means. A bowl that travels through space and time at profound speed. Who knows? Whatever. Point is, I did not associate it with the actual word. Still, however the fuck you want to pronounce it, hyperbole is the trick.
Not necessarily to use it, but to imagine with it.
This works particularly well with people, but whatever it is, imagine the thing you want to describe in your mind’s eye. A man. A dog. A car. A monkey. A spaceship. A house.
Then imagine one detail exagerrated. In your mind’s eye, amplify it. Mentally turn it to something almost resembling caricature. Then you take that one detail and write about it. Maybe not as exaggerated as you pictured in your head — but that one hyperbolized feature is the thing you find to be visually most compelling. The nose. The windows. The fingernails. The wallpaper. Whatever it is, that’s your detail.
Face the color of paste.
Bob had little butthole eyes.
Tabor was huge, hunkered over the cart like Godzilla playing pinball.
It’s something I’ve always done, and yet remained something I wasn’t aware I was doing. Sound crazy? Maybe. It works, though, because it allows you to be distinctive in description without going over board. King talks a little about this in On Writing, talking about how you have to find the happy medium, but he goes on to posit that physical description as a shortcut to character is lazy writing. I don’t agree — and his examples (“arrogant cheekbones”) are bad because they’re poorly described, not bad because the technique is shitty. Some writers — like Denton — do very well with physical characteristics, painting for us a character that leaps off the page in a line or two. (King’s characters at times drift toward the generic, I find, and Denton’s characters emerge a more cleanly for me.)
“Arrogant cheekbones” doesn’t even mean anything.
But take the description of Leo, above — those lips, the lines, that toupee, they create a big picture out of little details. That is not a fond description. And it shouldn’t be: we’re not meant to like him, because our serial killer protagonist is going to royally fuck his shit up in just a couple-few pages.
It’s a great show don’t tell technique. The cop’s veined nose seems to throb — it doesn’t tell us something (he’s a drunk, he’s a red-nosed blowhard, he’s an unpleasant fucking dude), but it suggests those things.
Yes, you still have to describe it in a way that doesn’t suck (“arrogant cheekbones”), and yes, you still should let that detail do double-duty (shows you something about the character), but this technique might be a good way to intuit the details that matter in a fast, gut-check kind of way. You picture this guy, this thing, this place, and — close your eyes, boom boom boom, these three details pop.
Run with them.
Make them matter.
Rub my wisdom into your hair and cheeks. It’s a good conditioner and moisturizer.