JM Williams

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When Your Description is Meaningless


Describe me, I dare you.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King offers many tips on how to write good description. But in doing so, he reveals a fundamental problem with his style of writing–using words that have no inherent meaning.

King does this a lot in IT. He references pop culture without describing the referents. He’ll drop a song title without lyrics, or casually mention a film or an actor. To a reader who does not already have specific knowledge of these referents (which in the case of IT, means knowledge of the 1950s), it will simply be “that one song” or “that one guy who starred in that one movie one time”–meaningless.

This can also be seen in a oft-quoted passage from On Writing where King describes how to describe. He suggests avoiding long descriptions about physical characteristics or clothes and suggests instead:

“If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you? I don’t need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown. We all remember one or more high school losers, after all; if I describe mine, it freezes out yours, and I lose a little bit of the bond of understanding I want to forge between us.”

If you think about his example description for a while, you realize it means very little on its own (besides the “bad complexion” part, but that is ambiguous without context–a bad complexion could be acne, it could be age, it could be sun damage, or countless other things). King’s description is all referential. It depends completely on the cultural knowledge and experience of the reader.

King expects his reader to have the very same life experience as he did. He says here “We all remember one or more high school losers, after all”. What if you didn’t go to high school? What if you were home-schooled? What if you aren’t even American?

The latter question is key for us as modern writers. King started writing when it was not expected to break out beyond your country, or even your local region. It was all print, and logistics were a pain. Now, thanks to Amazon and ebooks, every writer is a global writer. I have English readers from the UK, Australia, Singapore, South Africa. They are not going to get descriptions that rely solely on cultural knowledge.

We Americans think it is good description because we understand the reference, but I actually think this is very poor description in the long run.

What if someone picks the book up after 100 years, when there is no more high school because knowledge is digitally injected into our brains? Oh, and everyone wears the same Star Trek-style unitards, so fashion is no longer a thing. Then the description he offers says nothing to the reader. I think it is much better to actually describe the girl’s face and clothes, rather than rely on references that are not going to endure, or may not even be understood by some modern readers.

And yet he does it again when he moves on to location description. After providing a sample passage that relies on cultural references such as “maitre d” and “twenties speakeasy,” he asks how it could be improved by saying:

“There are plenty of details I could have added–the narrowness of the room, Tony Bennett on the sound system, the Yankees bumper-sticker on the cash register–but what would be the point?”

Only one of these three details has inherent meaning. I certainly couldn’t bring a Tonny Bennet song to mind when asked. The Yankees reference might have more global reach, but is still limited. Not everyone is going to get that this detail is placing the location in New York.

Regarding description, King states:

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

This is, indeed, absolutely true. Writer’s have an idea in their head and good writing is that which coveys the idea to the reader. The trouble is that I have different tools in my head–a different culture, life experience, and lexicon–and I must be sure that the words I use to describe my scene are not dependent on those things that are exclusive to my own mind.

If you don’t pay attention to this, you are setting yourself up for failure somewhere down the line, even if it’s a century from now. I imagine that is one reason why the classics still endure. I don’t remember Dickens citing popular culture in his descriptions. And when things do come up that are expected to be strange for the reader–such as everything about whaling in Melville–they are explained in detail. King takes shortcuts, but sometimes shortcuts are a trap.

I’ll leave this post with a bit of a positive. I’m not suggesting that On Writing is a bad book. It’s actually a very good, if basic, writing guide–excepting the above issue, of course. Another passage from the pages surrounding he ones quoted above states:

“I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story
of mine looked like–I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well.”

I think this is the ultimate truth, at least in regards to character description. The reader is going to end up generating their own image of the character. So yes, keep the description short since there is only so much the reader will heed, but at the same time make sure your words are meaningful and not just empty references.

Thanks for reading.


9 Responses to When Your Description is Meaningless

  1. I have the same problem when writers try to convey the character by describing the brand name of the clothing they’re wearing, or the name of the band on their t-shirt. Without knowing what those referents mean in the context of the story world (which is not my own personal world), I have zero idea what this tells me about the character. Is she cool? Tough? An outcast? A wannabe? Living in the past? Nope, zero idea.

    • Oh, gods yes, brands. Another thing King does a whole lot. But on the flip side, I have seen brands used well. William Gibson uses brands to set up his future world (which companies endured and took over, etc?). But the understanding of an object or place is never dependent on knowing the brand. I used this technique in a story I recently wrote, using unknown future brands as a world-building tools. I even use the ™ mark in my prose. Ha!

      • I actually prefer it when speculative writers make up a brand and then clarify through the characters’ reactions what that brand signifies in their culture.

  2. I get very annoyed if the reference is too regional, it takes a while to picture or imagine why that description has any relevance to the character or story line. good post JM, tips are always so helpful.

  3. This is so true. There are lots of references King makes that I only understood years later, while as a kid I didn’t know who Tony Bennett or The Who or a number of other pop-culture references (songs, movies, actors, celebs) he made. Although it does make readers who know all those references become deeply ingrained in the story and the setting. A deeper understanding of it all.

    Also in his book, 11/22/63, where the protagonist goes back in time, it feels like King is stuck in his own past and knows how to make the time period legitimate because of his experience of those times.

    Either way these a really great points and as a King reader (and fan) I’ve kind of adopted this type of writing and am trying to move away from it for the reasons you stated.

    • JM Williams

      King was just the example that came up in a discussion I had, and of course On Writing came up. But many authors do this. It’s a habit of sorts.

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