Descriptions in Writing – the rules and how to break them

breaktherulesHey all! This post was inspired by one of my friends. He made a post (warning: moving background on his blog) about tips that made him a better writers over the years. But that post made me think of all the advice I’ve doled out over the years as well. Mainly it’s been advice that I’ve cobbled together from my professors, other sources, and my own experiences. It’s really easy to find writing advice out there – though oftentimes they’re presented as hard rules.

I’ve found that, with writing, rules are often meant to be broken. But that it comes down to knowing when you should be breaking them. And how you should be breaking them.

So how do you know when to do so?

We’re going to be focusing in on descriptions, specifically. There are a lot of rules in writing, but description is one where I think things get a bit more nebulous.

beautiful description vs. purple prose

If you’ve been in writing for awhile, you’ve heard of purple prose. It’s one of the things I dislike most about literary fiction, actually. Though, there is a fair share of purple prose in genre fiction as well. All genres are guilty of purple prose. But what you hear is that you want to avoid purple prose.

This sometimes leads people to a very concise style of writing, which isn’t necessarily bad, but also isn’t necessarily good. Think of your story as a meal and description as the spice. Too little spice and the meal falls flat, too much spice and the meal is unbearable. Finding that happy medium is where you want to be. Sometimes you need to get a little fancy with your descriptions – whether that’s an action or a character’s appearance or even the setting. It can be used to show that your main character has noticed something unique about one of those things, that it’s caught their interest more than others. It can be used to show that something is more significant.

For an example, when I was writing a fairy tale for an assignment my freshman year of college, I wanted to emphasize the supernatural beauty of two characters. That led me to this passage:

The clan had two teenage children, twins, Erix and Erina.  They were feared for their appearance, for no one natural could have such phenomenal colored eyes and such perfectly raven hair; Erix with a vivid aquamarine and Erina with crimson.

Ten years later, I can see all the flaws with the passage, but that’s beside the point. I’m not sure this passage is actually getting across what I wanted to convey at that time, though. Right now, it’s just a description of two characters with mentions to their hair and eyes being too perfect and bold. It feels like it isn’t being executed correctly. Nowadays I might try…

The clan had a pair of teenage twins – Erix and Erina – who were feared as witches. The village’s only claim to them being supernatural stemmed from their appearance. Both had hair like raven’s feathers, a black that reflected the colors around them. But what really damned them was their eyes, Erina’s were a crimson that seemed to burn while Erix’s were a pure, oceanic blue. The villagers claimed that no one with eyes so bold could be natural.

I think that works a little better, though it feels a little wordy. But considering I wrote it on the fly, I think it’s okay! While both passages are working with the physical descriptions of the characters – the second one gives a little more on how the village feels about it which is something that is integral to the story. I removed the word aquamarine because in the last ten I’ve reevaluated how I feel on gemstones being used as eye color descriptions. Unlike my friend, I think they should be used sparingly. And this wasn’t the right situation, there was a different way I could describe the the color of Erix’s eyes.

saying what you mean

This is one that I feel is a bit complicated. I agree wholeheartedly on using the word that best describes what you’re trying to convey. Your thesaurus isn’t necessarily your friend. If your readers can’t understand what you’re trying to get across, you might alienate them. As much as I love learning new words, I don’t like having to look up words all the time when I’m reading. Mainly because it slows down the overall reading pace.

But getting to the complicated part and rule breaking.

There are a lot of clichés in physical descriptions, especially in eye color. Using blue, green, brown, grey, hazel, etc. can feel a bit boring – which then leads people to using more descriptive words to paint the picture. I’ve used ‘a pale green, like good celery’, or ‘the type of grey a particularly nasty thunderstorm has’, and ‘a strange mix of amber and gold – wholly unnatural looking’. I’ve found a lot of ways to get away around ‘boring’ descriptions as well as clichéd ones.

But what about those gemstone descriptions? This is where I feel rules can be broken – but only sparingly. Removing the gemstones from color descriptions often leaves you with resorting to ‘fire red’ or ‘sky blue’ or any other variety of similar descriptions. And while there is nothing wrong with those, they do start to border in on clichés. Or you’re pushed into using fancier descriptions than you want – which pushes your writing toward purpose prose.

One point where I think I used the gemstone description well is here:

Her eyes are the deep red of garnets and are unmistakably that color

I take a lot of things into consideration when I’m giving physical descriptions to characters, especially when it comes to connotations. There are a few other words I could have used to describe that deep red – like blood red or sanguine or wine – but they didn’t fit. Blood is too aggressive, sanguine is just another word for blood, and wine felt too rich (and is the wrong color to boot!)

And one where I screwed up…

Her eyes are a bold, clear malachite, with just as much variegation  as the actual stone.

See…I know what malachite is, but not everyone does. I was a big rock and mineral nerd when I was younger, so somehow my mind has processed that it’s common knowledge when it actually isn’t.


I wanted the character in question to seem otherworldly and this stone seemed the best way. It really is a unique stone – and I wasn’t sure how to describe what I saw in my mind.  Still not sure, actually. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. For now her eyes will be described as green for simplicity’s sake.

before this becomes a novel…

Breaking the rules when it comes to description is situational. Breaking the rules in writing, in general, is situational. It depends on what you feel will best convey what you mean to get across. There’s nothing wrong with a simplistic description, nor is there anything wrong with something a bit fancier. I feel a lot of it is about balance and that a lot of it is left up to your discretion.

But if your beta-reader or editor points something out as feeling a bit too flowery or that it feels wrong…maybe you should reconsider how you were describing everything.

Find that happy medium and perfectly ‘spice’ your novel.

And now for a quick sneak peek at something big…


That’s the base image for the Opus Crescendo cover art. The amazing Kaorien did the art and I’m so happy with it. Thank you, Kaorien!

This is probably my last blog of 2016, so see you in the new year!

Happy writing!



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