In the fun and wacky movie, The Fifth Element, a future slang term for things being good is green. What do you see if I write green? You picture, probably, your favorite shade or least disliked shade of green.
When I add a modifier, an adjective, and write dark green, do you picture nearly black? Forest green? Pine needles?
For the rest of this blog post, I’m using the verb “say” to mean both written words and spoken words. Writers hear what they write, and most readers hear what they read, so those verbs are interchangeable here.
Imagine a tall man. With long hair. And a tattoo. How tall? If you are lacking in height yourself, perhaps anyone 5’7” and up is tall to you. My husband is 6′ tall. To him, 6’2” isn’t very tall.
How long is long hair? If you like military cuts, then hair that sweeps the man’s shirt collar is long. Growing up in the sixties, shoulder length hair was normal. Hair long enough to be put in a pony tail is long, and yummy.
Tattoos not only need more description but also imply things about a character or person. You might be hard pressed to find anyone under 30 who doesn’t have a tattoo. Body ink is more common and acceptable now than ever. “A tattoo” conveys nothing. My dad was in the navy as a young man. He has an eagle tattoo on his upper right arm. But just search Pinterest for tattoos and you’ll see Everything and anything, anywhere, and everywhere.
Personally, I think too much ink loses impact, and one perfectly placed art piece is best. My naval captain hero will no doubt have a tattoo of some sort, no doubt on his arms.
At one time, tattoos were associated with drugs, guns, tough guys and hard chicks. Bikers and people you wouldn’t want to invite home to meet the folks. Money has been made in tattoo laser removal services.
I’ve had the hardest time as a writer to use adjectives sparingly but not too sparingly, and not vague words. I describe most of my heros as tall. But added in one story that he stood taller than any other person she knew. In another, he’s always ducking when walking through a doorway. Yet another retrieves his hat constantly when it’s knocked off by overhead obstructions that do not impede anyone else.
Hair length and color and curl or lack of it all need to be conveyed in sharp, short sentences. Clothes, my weakest point in description, has to include style, weight, color, fabric. Other senses need to be included, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. Writers often overuse description of visuals, but those are important. Remembering how things smell and sound takes a bit of practice.
Conveying a scene with one character or a thousand, describing each blade of grass or each heart beat, all things need to be exact and not leave too much to the imagination. Here are more opinions on the subject:
Chew on that for a while, and I will be back on Sunday.