Why is descriptive writing so important in a novel? Because unlike movies, novels are not visual.
When you watch a film, all of the “description” is done for you by a camera and a microphone. All writers have are words. So you need to use those words to help the reader see and hear (and smell, taste and touch, too).
You can use them literally (“she wore a red dress”). Or you can write more figuratively. For example…
- It’s tough to describe the precise look on a character’s face when they’re in a really, really foul mood.
- But if you say that their face looked like “the sky before a storm,” readers will get the idea.
You may think that it’s impossible for mere “words” to compete with a movie camera. And to an extent, you’re right…
A picture really is worth a thousand words!
On the other hand, novels hold one huge advantage over the big-screen experience: the power of the human imagination.
If you see a beautiful setting on the screen, the visuals can be amazing (no doubt about that). But you’re still forced to accept the director’s version of a “beautiful setting.”
With good descriptive writing, you can paint a picture of this setting using just a few well-chosen details… and leave it up to the reader to complete the picture.
That way, everyone can visualize their own version of this setting.
Description can be powerful, then. But it’s easy to overdo it and end up with slushy writing. So as with a lot of things in novel writing, beware of heavy-handedness.
A little goes a long way!
Okay, time for the details. I’ve split the article into three parts…
- First, how to write figuratively (by using similes, metaphors and other figures of speech in your descriptions).
- Second, on the next page, how to evoke all five senses in your writing.
- Finally, we’ll look at how to use the best details in your descriptions.
Sitting comfortably? Let’s go…
Descriptive Writing & Figures of Speech
The most important figures of speech are similes and metaphors. In fact, they lie at the very heart of great description.
Used well, they can transform a story. Used badly, or too much, they can kill your prose.
What Are Similes and Metaphors?
Both metaphors and similes compare one thing with another. A simile says that X is “like” or “as” Y…
- Her skin was as smooth as cream.
- Her hair felt like silk.
- Her eyes were as blue as neon.
With a metaphor, X actually becomes Y. Metaphors are transformative…
- Her skin was made of cream and her hair of the finest silk.
- The man was a beast.
- His whole life had been a roller coaster ride.
Similes and metaphors allow you to describe things that would otherwise be impossible to bring to life using so few words.
Take “the man was a beast”…
Literally, of course, he is no such thing – he’s a human being. What the metaphor implies, though, is that this man has the qualities of a beast – strength, aggression, lack of intelligence, and so on.
A metaphor allows you to say all of this, and more, in just four or five words.
Generally speaking, a simile is weaker than a metaphor. “Her hair felt like silk” just isn’t as powerful as “Her hair was silk”. But both figures of speech have their place in good descriptive writing.
When to Use Similes and Metaphors
If a simile is the poor cousin of a metaphor, why not ditch them altogether and use only metaphors? For the simple reason that a metaphor in the wrong place can stand out awkwardly, like a man wearing black tie to a cheap burger bar.
Take a look at this example…
When Mary pulled open the door, she had to screw up her eyes against the glare. The sun dazzled off the snowy roof tops like they were mirrors, and it was thirty seconds before she could see clearly. The snow on the driveway was untouched by human footsteps, and Mary felt like a pioneer as she trudged towards the front gate. Overnight, while she had slept, the world had turned into a fairy tale.
There are three figures of speech here. Two are similes (“like they were mirrors”, “like a pioneer”) and one’s a metaphor (“the world had turned into a fairy tale”).
Now, the similes could easily have been written as metaphors with a little reworking…
- The snowy roof tops were mirrors angled to the dazzling light of the sun, and it was thirty seconds before she could see clearly.
- The snow on the driveway was untouched by human footsteps, and Mary became a pioneer as she trudged towards the front gate.
But it would have been too much.
The climax of this paragraph is the final metaphor, in which the world isn’t merely like a fairy tale, but actually is one.
For this final image to carry maximum weight, everything must build towards it without overshadowing it, and that’s why it’s best to keep the two earlier figures of speech – the two similes – as “low key” as possible.
Four Rules for Using Similes and Metaphors
1. Less is definitely more.
Similes and metaphors are like the finishes touches in a room – a cranberry scatter cushion here, a fancy vase there, two Georgian candlesticks on the mantelpiece.
Used well, they beautify a passage in a novel. Used too often, they make it look gaudy.
Solution? If in doubt, strike them out!
2. Avoid the commonplace.
What’s wrong with these examples?…
- He drank like a fish.
- She had the heart of a lion.
- The town was as dead as a dodo.
The first time they were ever used, way back when, they would have been fresh and clever. Now they’re not!
Use original and interesting figures of speech and readers will sit up and take notice. Resort to similes and metaphors that come easily to mind and readers, dare I say it, will “avoid you like the plague.”
3. Don’t use two similes together.
Using too many similes in general is not recommended, but using one right after the other is a definite no-no. It simply doesn’t work, as these examples show…
- She had skin like cream, hair like silk, and eyes like green marbles.
- He was as fearless as a lion and as fast as a cheetah.
- Frank stood on the edge of the diving board like a prisoner on the gallows. The short drop to the pool looked as daunting as the Grand Canyon.
4. Don’t mix metaphors.
This is virtually the same point as above, although the problem is a subtler one. Take a look at this…
Norman’s mind was a machine. He could waltz through cryptic crosswords in mere minutes.
The trouble here is that the message is confused. First, Norman’s intelligence is compared to a clever and efficient machine. Next, his speed at crosswords is compared to the speed and grace of a dance.
If you don’t want the reader to say “Huh?” you must always “follow metaphors through” once you’ve introduced them. Like this…
Norman’s mind was a machine. He could process cryptic crosswords in mere minutes.
Other Figures of Speech
Similes and metaphors are the “big two.” But you have plenty of other figures of speech in your toolbox. Let’s rattle through a few of them…
This is where you take an inanimate object and animate it – that is, give it human qualities. To give you the idea, here are a few examples I made up…
Fred loved his Alfa Romeo but the car didn’t always love Fred. It chose the worst days possible to fall sick on him and refuse to move a muscle.
Mary waded out into the sea but was shoved back to the shore by a great bully of a wave.
On stormy nights, the jagged rocks chewed up many an unsuspecting fishing boat and spat them out in splinters.
Personification is an excellent way to take a flat description and transform it into something far more dynamic.
This is deliberate exaggeration, often for comic effect. There’s a great example of it in Martin Amis’s Money that has stayed with me for years. He describes the difficulty of crossing the street in Los Angeles like so…
The only way to get across the road is to be born there.
That may make you smile or not. But there’s no doubting that it’s a very concise way of painting a picture in the readers’ minds. And here’s one I made up myself…
Remember, descriptive writing isn’t about pages and pages of flowery language. It’s about getting the reader to see what the author sees in as brief a space as possible.
These are words which sound like the actions they describe. Batman is full of them…
However, if you don’t want a scene in your novel to sound like a sequence from Batman, use onomatopoeias more subtly…
John was hopeless at golf. The ball rarely ended up where he had intended to hit it, but he loved the good thwack of the driver sending it on its misguided way.
Emily loved the sound of her son’s pony clip-clopping down the lane.
This is the repetition of similar sounds in a sentence (like the “s” sounds in this sentence).
You’re more likely to find it in poetry. But used sparingly and in the right places, it can enhance a piece of prose just as much.
To illustrate, here’s one of the most famous sentences ever written – the final line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Notice the repeated “b” sounds…
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Bottom line on figures of speech?
Good writing happens instinctively – you do it without particularly thinking about it. So don’t think that you’ve got to consciously work examples like those above into your own novel.
Yes, it’s useful to learn all the figures of speech (I tracked down a more detailed article on them here). But then it’s best to forget them. If and when the time is right, you’ll naturally work them into your own writing without forcing it.
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