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.

Gone, Daddy, Gone

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.

Use them.

Run with them.

Make them matter.

Rub my wisdom into your hair and cheeks. It’s a good conditioner and moisturizer.

What?

23 comments

  • I’ll refrain from my usual smart-assery. I’ll even omit any mention of winged otter phalluses or skull-humping distraction apes.

    All I have to say is, “Thank you”. This is one of the most useful writing tips I’ve encountered. No bear-patties, Cochise. Most of the advice you see out there amounts to little more than “Just write, and eventually you will be able to squirt sparkly scripts from your nether-regions with nary a push.”

    It’s nice to receive a bit of gooey wisdom that will actually clear up my complexion instead of just getting in my eye and making it burn.

  • One other trick I encountered in an obscure corner of an obscure book is that you can convey a particular type of message (about the subject or the narrator, depending) with your choice of hyperbole. That is, by re-using a certain sort of comparison (or more specifically, staying within the language of a specific field) you can add another layer to what you’re saying.

    That is to say, if your narrator is a newspaperman, use the comparisons that make sense to him. Dark as spilled ink. Rustling like newsprint. Above the Fold. Different language than a military man or an athlete might use. You don’t need to get too heavy handed about it, but if you tilt things that way, it lets you use these things to show the reader things about the observer without needing to explicitly call them out.

    -Rob D.

    • @Rob:

      For the most part, I love that. It’s as much about metaphor as it is about hyperbole, but fuck it, I love metaphor. I love metaphors in ways I cannot describe. Joe Landsale, for the record, is the King Of Awesome Metaphors.

      In certain books — say, hardboiled, or certain genre conventions, or even something with a tongue-in-cheek approach — that could be very valuable.

      Outside of that, it could be very easy to misuse — meaning, could be easy to go heavy-handed with it. Going too far with that borders on “punning,” almost. You could argue that Chandler did this, but put additional steps between the subject and the metaphor — so, it’s less a direct through-and-through personification, but rather, a more distant (yet still linked) throughline. So, if he writes about someone liking to be a “kept poodle,” they’re not a dog handler, but rather, he’s drawing a comparison between the more abstract elements of “poodledom.” Effete, primping, prancing, etc. — it’s not “a leashed dog,” but a “kept poodle.” That metaphor still has that layer, that throughline, but it’s less overt.

      Or something like that.

      – c.

  • This is massively helpful to me. I’ve been scared off from describing characters by reading so much bad fantasy that uses shit descriptions like “arrogant cheekbones” straight- faced. But this… This I’ll have to try. Hey, is that Kool-Aid?

  • This is similar to my own internal rule of “one obvious feature, one subtle feature.” (Or, to put it in really nerdy terms, Demeanor and Nature.) It works for physical descriptions as well as personality descriptions. I’ve since expanded personality to my own version of the character diamond, but I think the comparison and contrast of two details leads to a great sparse-but-complete characterization.

  • Great article. I’ve been working on my manuscript and finding the right balance of too much or too little in description has been an issue. You’ve made it much clearer… except for the gooey stuff in my eyes!

    • You’re welcome, JR. Also, sorry, JR.

      Here’s a tissue. And some industrial-strength cleaner. You’re going to need it.

      And you might as well just shave your head, because the smell is never going to come out.

      – c.

  • Well, it’s a diamond, see. It’s like…

    Okay, wait. Imagine a diamond. At the top point… that’s my top point, not your top point..

    Let me start again. Imagine a whale…

    You know, let me get back to you on that.

  • “Selflessly giving of myself so that you may bathe in wisdom.”

    Uh, the last time I accused you of such benevolence you told me I was way off base and that you’re just a selfish jerkhole. I’m beginning to suspect multiple personalities.

    But whatever your reasons for sharing your gooey wisdom – selfishness, selflessness or shellfishness – I’m just glad that you do. So, spanx!

  • To me, Hyperbole is the deer slug of descriptive writing. In any given descriptive passage, you really only need to use it once.

    Unless, of course, you miss.

  • I need description. I need a lot of it and for it to be good. I don’t dig on novels that leave it out in favor of story. One reason I read is to be taken someplace, not just told what happens in other places. I want every novel to be part travel show. All writing is travel writing, as far as I’m concerned, just as all movies should be shot on location. I’d rather have excess description that I breeze through or skip over to get to dialogue than have too little.

    I am emphatic about this because a book I’m reading right now has too little description in it.

    • @Will:

      I like the idea that Rob brought up so many eons ago, the Betty Crocker “leave out the egg” notion.

      Some authors leave out too many eggs.

      King, for instance, leaves out too many eggs for my taste.

      That said, too much description kills a story faster than too little, for me. I’d rather there not be parts I have to skip. If I find myself skipping parts, I drop the book pronto and pick up something else.

      – c.

  • Maybe I’m hopping on the porch with the big dogs too soon, here, but could it be argued that the intensity or amount of character description can also be genre specific?

    For instance, Chuck, I’ve read a few of your short stories and obviously your daily posts. When you gave the examples from that book, I thought it sounded just like something you would write. I’m not sure what the genre or classification is for the things you write or what Blackburn is considered, but I think the style of description used is perfect for that style of writing.

    However, in my preferred genre, character traits are damn-near listed in paragraph form in what we hope is an eloquent and not too purple-prosey way. But I think the readers of the romance genre want the detailed descriptions of the main characters.

    Does anybody else here write in any other genres than the super-cool/bizarre/wacko style of Chuck (sorry, I have no idea what it really is) or romance (I think I’m alone in that one here)? I’m curious what the take is on what’s acceptable/normal for other genres.

  • Man… description. They are my weak point. Now Chuck as enlightened me! The knowledge input was so overwhelming that I had a nose bleed! I was getting pretty good (at the amateur level) at the “show, don’t tell” thing… but then I stopped fiction for almost two month and restarted today. Ouch. Epic fail is all I have to say. I’ll have to try the hyperbole thing. Thanks Chuck.

  • You inspired me:

    Her ass jiggled like Jello, and everybody noticed.

    Peaking out between his fingers, her son saw people staring. She should never have wore those pants, he thought, closing his eyes.

    When she looked down at him, he hummed: “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”

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