A Rose By Any Other Name: Nailing Description

Her hair bounced off her shoulders in honeyed curls.

Any story is going to require some amount of descriptive text in order to set the scene or paint a mental picture. But how do you elevate it to more than just "the chair was over here and it was grey."? How do you make it effective, meaningful, and contextual? How do you keep it from being generic and boring?

Description comes in three main forms: metaphor, simile, and what I call plain (adjectives + noun). In my opinion, a metaphor is more beautiful than simile, which is more beautiful than plain, so I try to opt for a metaphor when I can. But also keep in mind that all three of these should occur in your writing in varying proportions. Too much of one or another though can make your writing sound stilted.

When I write description, I try to make them as economical as possible. I want to have them pull double or triple duty. If I'm going with metaphor, I'm going to go with something that portrays as much of the qualities of the thing I'm describing in one go. So how do I choose which variables? In English, the most usual sequence is:

order

relating to

examples

1

opinion

unusual, lovely, beautiful

2

size

big, small, tall

3

physical quality

thin, rough, untidy

4

shape

round, square, rectangular

5

age

young, old, youthful

6

color

blue, red, pink

7

origin

Dutch, Japanese, Turkish

8

material

metal, wood, plastic

9

type

general-purpose, four-sided, U-shaped

10

purpose

cleaning, hammering, cooking

We naturally default to this order without realizing it. A "lovely, small, Japanese hammer" sounds more correct than a "Japanese, lovely, small hammer". But be careful not to try and use all ten variables to describe something. That's a level of specificity that is not needed and forces the reader to focus on the description and not the story.

He reached for the unusually small, thin, rectangular, old, red, Japanese, wooden, u-shaped hammer.

I like to approach description with just enough to paint the picture, and even then, only the qualities that are relevant to the scene. If the hammer being made of wood is important to the scene, maybe because a metal hammer would be too damaging, then I'll call it a wooden hammer. If not, just calling a hammer will be sufficient. If any variant of a hammer will work in the scene, there's no need to call it out specifically.

Let's take a look at the opening quote of this blog.

"Her hair bounced off her shoulders in honeyed curls." 

In this short sentence, I convey the length of her hair, the color, and quality of its movement. I could have said golden curls or blonde curls, but I went with honeyed. Why? Maybe because my pov character is a beekeeper or a dessert enthusiast and is much more apt to associate that color with honey than with gold, or blonde.

The word "honeyed" also conveys a sense of movement. It doesn't bounce erratically off her shoulder, but slowly and smoothly. I could have just said that her hair was shoulder length. However, by saying "bounced off her shoulders", it's implied that her hair is shoulder length, and it's more active.

Now think about the way you, as a person with a unique past, unique memories, and unique associations would describe something. Everything you write is from someone's unique point of view, whether it's your main character, a narrator, or some other pov character. What if they are young, if they're old, if they're a soldier, a chemist, or bisexual? What has just happened to your character? What are fond memories from their past? What do they yearn for? What are the things that shape or color the lens through which they see the universe, and affect the way that you write your descriptions?