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Background

I've had this question for a really long time. A lot of my work seems quite 'floaty' and 'old style' because I describe things in a very metaphorical and surreal way. For example:

Her eyes were made dull by the inclement sky.

I have this obsession with describing eyes to be shinier than anything imaginable. I think this description is quite bad because of the word 'inclement', it just seems a bit old and unused.

The horses galloped wearily through a river, barely being able to keep increasing their speed in tandem with (unnnamed's) kicks.

Woohoo that's a way better description! Okay so I think this is a little metaphorical and old-style because I haven't just said that the horses were tired, rather I've created an extended sentence to describe the horses being unable to perform to how the rider wants them to. I don't know if this is showing not telling or plainly bad and metaphorical description.

It howled at their ears, like a pack of wolves, and rushed in streams around their faces and skin.

That's the best quote to describe what I mean. This sentence is referring to the wind. I'm not just saying 'the wind was loud, and fast', instead I'm using a simile and personification. The wind can't rush, and it doesn't howl. This style of description is reminiscent of some older-style works.


Question

So in short, the question is this:

  • Is it better to have metaphorical descriptions, or upfront ones that get the point across?
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    I might be getting this wrong, but it looks like you are asking for a purely stylistic critique on several out-of-context quotes from your own writing. The only answer to the question at the end is it is a matter of style and there is no better (or any other) way. It is for you only to decide, what is better, you are the author. – Lew Feb 22 '17 at 16:24
  • I just included those to provide examples of what I mean. If you want, I can remove them. @Lew – Daniel Cann Feb 22 '17 at 17:32
  • It is all the same to me, I think that you should have the right to phrase any question in any way you see fit; I am only saying that it can be perceived as a request for critique. – Lew Feb 22 '17 at 17:36
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    Stop worrying and keep writing. :-) – Lew Feb 22 '17 at 17:42
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    It is a perfectly legitimate question, and illustrating a broad question with specific examples is exactly the right thing to do. It does somewhat distress me though, that anyone should feel the need to ask a question like this. The writer's toolbox is pretty limited to begin with. I am not sure why so many writers today feel the need to empty out most of the tools in the box before they begin. (Of course, then the end up here asking how to do things without all of the tools they foolishly threw away.) Writers should keep all the tools and learn how to use them properly. – user16226 Feb 22 '17 at 18:07
2

There is no answer to this question. This isn't an either/or question, because either one can be appropriate, or inappropriate, depending on the situation.

If you're trying to write an action scene, you probably want to keep your descriptions short and to the point, to avoid bogging down your narrative. Compare

His gun was up in a moment and firing, three quick, precise shots, but Vader simply held up his hand, palm outward, and the bolts were absorbed harmlessly.

to

His gun flashed into his hand as if through hyperspace, leaping almost of its own accord up into the firing stance, and three times he fired at the towering black Gargoyle, like the three trench runs with which they had crippled the monster's Death Machine. But the gargoyle extended a single ghastly appendage and absorbed the shots more easily than a black hole swallowing light...*

One is punchy, quick, gets the point across; the other is elaborate, slow, and takes forever to get where it's going. On the other hand, if you're taking your time and setting a more contemplative mood, metaphor can be an incredibly powerful tool.

She had grey eyes, brown hair, and wore a black t-shirt

vs

Her storm-grey eyes mirrored the overcast above, while her brown hair blended seamlessly with the muddy road beside us. Her head almost seemed to float above the deep black of her t-shirt, disconnected from the rest.

or

Her eyes, grey as the stormy sky, flashed and sparkled like the stream beside us, and her earthy brown hair flew in the wind, and the darkness of her t-shirt barely disguised the curves of her body.

Any of these can work - it just depends what you're trying to do.

2

It is better to be a straightforward as possible in all descriptions. The aim is to form an image in the reader's mind, and the simplest language that does that is the language you should choose, since to do more risks the reader getting stuck in the thicket of words and not receiving the intended image.

The reason we sometimes use metaphorical language is that literal language does not always do a good job of evoking images in the human mind. For example, there are these famously bad lines from Wordsworth:

Not five yards from the mountain-path,
This thorn you on your left espy;
And to the left, three yards beyond,
You see a little muddy pond
Of water, never dry,
I've measured it from side to side:
'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.

A set of dimensions hardly accomplishes the poetic purpose of calling an image or an emotion to the reader's mind.

If we say that a bull was a big as an elephant, it is because giving the measurements of the bull in feet and inches would not convey to the reader the image of a really large bull. Comparing it to something imposingly big, like an elephant, however, immediately brings an image to the mind.

The danger with metaphorical writing, however, is that you can get drunk on the sound of the words and end up with purple prose. The thing about purple prose is that the reader receives it a prose: as a pretty sequence of words, not as an image.

I think it is worth noting here that "image" in this context should not be interpreted simply as "picture". I think we can create image of other things in prose: images of emotions, for instance. This is image in the sense of thing imagined, and we can imagine anything that we can experience. We can experience emotions, so we can create the image of an emotion. This is part of what give prose a wider dynamic range than video.

  • 'drunk on the sound of the words ' - a perfect way to describe it – Daniel Cann Feb 22 '17 at 17:33
  • @DanielCann figurative language ;-) – user16226 Feb 22 '17 at 18:00
  • You say "It is better to be as straightforward as possible in all descriptions" (farewell, poetry as a genre :-)), then provide a quote which clearly illustrates the opposite, and say "A set of dimensions hardly accomplishes the poetic purpose". Now I agree. In the example given the unexpected straightforward description leads to a jarring stylistic mismatch. But does it not contradicts the initial statement? I am confused. – Lew Feb 23 '17 at 13:53
  • @lew You missed implication of "as possible". Raw data does not produce an image in the reader's mind. It is too straightforward. Purple prose is not straightforward enough. – user16226 Feb 23 '17 at 14:02

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