Have you ever read a description in a book and actually stopped to say to yourself “damn, that’s good.” And then maybe you reread it? Maybe you even read it to your spouse laying there beside you in bed, and they’re such a good sport that they pause “Westworld” to indulge you and listen to you gush? Maybe that’s just me…
I was reading “Moonglow,” by Michael Chabon, recently and came across this description of an ominous figure:
His close-cropped skull was indented on one side as by the corner of a two-by-four. In the crevice formed by his brow and cheekbones, his eyes glinted like dimes lost between sofa cushions.
It got me thinking about great descriptions, and their opposite: clichés.
What is a cliché?
The way I learned it, a cliché is any turn of phrase that you’ve ever heard before: fire-engine red, soft as a pillow, robin’s egg blue, fast as a speeding train. You get the idea.
Basically, a cliché is a symbol. If you write that someone sat down beneath a tree, you basically just painted a cartoon tree in the mind of your reader – two vertical lines with a squiggly circle on top.
But if your character nestles their butt between the swollen roots of a craggy oak, feels the rough bark, sees the dappled light fall through the canopy of tiny, waxed leaves, now you’re onto something. Now the reader can really see (and feel) that specific tree.
Characters can be cliché too. The tired mom yelling at her kid? That is a depressing cliché. But if she spins her wedding ring before slapping the kid, so the diamond will draw blood – that’s a lot more specific, and lot more vicious. Not only do we see the ring, the scratch on the kid’s face, but we’re thinking why is this woman so awful? What happened to her and why is she taking it out on her kid? The specificity of the action makes it interesting.
Are you seeing a theme here?
It’s All About the Details
Over and over I’ve noticed that details are what lift story and it components out of cliché. But digging deep for details is difficult.
The basic idea is that our brains are inherently lazy. We see something pale blue. We check our mental files for ways of describing it and come up with “sky blue.” Accurate, sure, but so boring, because everyone has heard that.
But if you really stop and look at the thing, and consider how your character would see it, and find a way to describe it in a way that no one ever has before, that’s when you’re really onto something. Like those dimes lost between sofa cushions. That shit takes practice. Make no mistake.
As an exercise, a teacher of mine once had us pick a place, any place, and describe that same place every day for the duration of the class, without ever repeating ourselves. It’s a really effective exercise. Try it. Step outside your front door and describe, in writing, what you see. Then do it every day for three months describing it differently every time.
Find The Dreaded Cliché
So how do we know if we’ve written something special or if we’re being lazy, just repeating something we heard once somewhere?
What I’ve found is that coming up with unique, detailed descriptions is such a challenge that I remember writing them. When I am reading my own work and I read a good description of something, I have a visceral memory of having paused at that spot in the story, really put myself into the character and found a way to accurately and specifically describe exactly what is happening.
Basically, if I read a description that I can’t remember suffering over, I assume it’s not very good. It may not be terrible. It might not even be cliché. But the ones I remember really working hard for are always my very best sentences.
Take Another Look
Next time you read over your own work, consider your descriptions. This is our task as writers. If we want to write something truly unique, we have to dig for those special descriptions that only we can write. It’s hard, but as my mom always says: if it were easy, everyone would do it.