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I'm in the middle of my first draft for my novel, and I can't seem to properly convey to my audience the image I'm trying to describe.

futuristic car

That's what I want to show my readers, but it's coming across all wrong, like, I'll say that it's sleek. But a lot of cars are sleek. I'll say it's silver, but that's too broad as well. Then I'll say that the wheels are circles.

Do you see my problem?

I'm way too vague for this "show don't tell" bit of writing, and it's giving me a hard time.

Can anybody help me find a way to describe something without naming it?

marked as duplicate by user29032, Community Apr 25 '18 at 16:25

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  • 4
    This isn't really an answer, but it's worth mentioning that a perfect description isn't really necessary. "A hyperfuturist hovercar, built of organic curves and sleek lines, ..." is more than enough; it's presumably not the most important thing going on in that scene. If any specific detail needs to be mentioned, mention that explicitly and leave the rest to the imagination -- "a sleek hyperfuturistic car with a clear glasteel roof...". (If you've got a reason to describe it in explicit detail, this comment doesn't apply.) – Nic Hartley Apr 25 '18 at 6:32
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    You could try "It doesn't have wheels"? "It hangs, like a cloud". Why not talk about the details which aren't car-like? – AJFaraday Apr 25 '18 at 10:40
  • @AJFaraday You, my good sir, are a genius. – Aspen the Artist and Author Apr 25 '18 at 16:24
  • @AspentheArtistandAuthor I'm actually pretty pleased with that reply whether or not it's sarcastic :) – AJFaraday Apr 25 '18 at 16:24
  • @AJFaraday no sarcasm, I took your comment to heart. – Aspen the Artist and Author Apr 25 '18 at 16:25
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In this case, think in terms of the process a draw-er would use to draw that concept.

They would start with an oval, like an egg.

"It was like an egg."

In this case, it is longer than an actual egg.

"If that egg had been smushed on the top so that it spread sleekly and smoothly at each end."

They would add lines and curves to define the wheel wells and windows.

"Of course, most eggs don't come with windows. And these were beauts. Odd angles, sloping, begging for speed."

Then add a little flair at the end.

"And most eggs aren't polished, either, to such an extent that seemed to come from another world."

First draft (I usually need four before I'm happy with something.Take it or leave it.):

It was like a silver egg, if that egg had been smushed on the top so that it spread sleekly from each end. Of course, most eggs don't come with windows. And these were beauts. Odd angles, sloping, begging for speed. And most eggs aren't polished either, to such an extent that it seemed to come from another world.

I think the key thing in this suggestion is to start with a known object that is not a car, so that the reader approaches it ignorant of 'car.'

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    "if that egg had been smushed on the top so that it spread sleekly from each end" I think the term you're looking for is 'elongated'. Smushed eggs crack, they don't elongate. Or, maybe just go with Twinkie. – Samuel Apr 24 '18 at 21:14
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    @Samuel Yes, :) the thought occurred, but first drafts are sloppy like that. Smushing allows action changing the egg, elongated is telling. Maybe second draft would be a twinkie, but a twinkie left on the bus seat and a small child accidentally sat upon ... – DPT Apr 24 '18 at 21:39
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    There are exactly two good things about first drafts: 1) they exist, and 2) they can be rewritten. That's usually about it. – corsiKa Apr 24 '18 at 23:48
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The thing with an imaginary object is this: people aren't going to see the exact same thing as you see in your mind, no matter how many words you pour on it. Each reader is going to imagine what you describe in a slightly different way.

For example, Tolkien describes hobbits in quite some detail. Yet here, here, here and here are four very different images of the same Bilbo Baggins.

With that in mind, how important is it that your reader imagines this particular car you have in mind, and not anything that's somewhat similar, but also different? How important is it that what you describe be distinct from anything else that might spring to mind when one reads "sleek silver hover-car"?

What details are important to the story you're telling? That it's a cool vehicle? That it's futuristic? Is it a one-of-a-kind, or is it an advanced model of something pretty common in the world you're describing? Focus on what would convey enough of a feeling of what you consider important. If the vehicle is exciting to your characters, that is conveyed by giving some details about it. The exact details are less important than the overall feeling they convey.

  • Wondering if all those Bilbos fit his description to the letter still... And all are in different styles as well... – Malady Apr 25 '18 at 3:23
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Only describe the important stuff that will play a role later and gloss over everything else with very broad descriptions - readers prefer their own mental image if it's not relevant for the story.

It's enough to use terms and phrases such as "futuristic", "very sleek" and "complete glass hood" to give the reader a broad sense of what it looks like. They wil have some idea of what these terms mean and will create their own mental image.

If an aspect is important for the story you need to describe it in greater detail, but again only as far as you need to. For example if the glass hood is important because information for the OP will be displayed on it while driving then you mention how the "glass hood" is equipped with some "hologram device" that projects the wanted information directly into the view of the driver. That's enough again. No need to describe those little hexagons you can see or how chassis is formed or where exactly the light is - it's just not that important and while it might enhance a readers immersion it's important to focus on the important stuff and trust that your readers will be able to develop their own mental images of what you are describing.

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    +1 with the caveat that if an aspect of scene is not grounded, it risks 'floating' - this can happen with everything from heads to objects to (floating cars. See what I did there? giggle/roll/catch my breath) And ---Sometimes describing the rough leather grip of the gear shift, wrapping your hand around it and plunging the car into fourth to the satisfying growl of the engine ... is good for anchoring the reader, even if the reader doesn't need to know if its automatic or standard transmission. – DPT Apr 24 '18 at 20:18
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It looks like a fish bowl had a baby with a bike helmet. Images, not adjectives, are what you need to describe something that does not look like anything conventional. You won't get close to the details -- words are not good at imparting physical details, they are good at recalling images that the reader already has in mind. The best you can hope for is to get an general impression by juxtaposing images that the reader is already familiar with.

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No matter the descriptors you use, each reader is going to form a slightly different image in their minds, depending on their own imagination and experiences. Therefore, I think what's more important is to decide what you want to convey about this vehicle. What about it is striking to the narrator or character viewing it, necessary to its function, or important to the plot and world of the story?

Perhaps you want to communicate that it is futuristic, or otherworldly - from there I would describe its shape in comparison to what the narrator is used to: It's like a car that's been rounded off at the edges, polished over, so much that "pod" might be a more appropriate word now. I don't think this thing growls when it moves like a truck would - I bet it hums, and you don't even hear that until it's already a block away.

Maybe if this is the first time we the readers are seeing it, and there's a feature of it that will become important later on, it would be a good idea to note that feature in a non-obvious but memorable way. For example if its advanced autopilot feature will be critical to ferry your inexperienced-driver character out of a tight spot later on, that feature might be revealed as its owner turns it on on the sky-highway to relax and have a conversation.

A lot of writing, I think, gets bogged down in painting a perfect visual picture rather than a perfect overall picture. Don't worry about your readers all visualizing the same exact car - that's an impossible task. Instead point out some key details, specific is better, and try to distill it to what's important to its place in the story.

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I'd say it's a glass egg on its side, in a form-fitting metal cage, where you sit reclined and can look out the top.

But, yeah, focus on what you need, and remove what you don't.

If you really want to set the picture, use it for the cover, or actually add pictures into your story.

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It is neither necessary nor desirable to give people perfectly exact visualizations of the physical details in your book. It isn't a technical document designed to allow them to build or recreate what is in your head. Your descriptions are there to allow the reader to experience your narrative.

What you want to give them are the necessary physical details, together with some emotional and narrative context. Part of the joy of reading (versus seeing a movie) is the chance to put your own imagination to work, and what's more important that what something looks like is what it's going to do for you, and how it makes you feel:

It was more of a spaceship than a car, and he loved it. A silver flash, freedom on wheels, an unidentified object flying down the highways. It was a way for him to get from point A to point B with maximum possible enjoyment.

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You're still telling and not showing. Don't.

You want to say "it's a flying car"? Describe your character parking it outside work.

Curvy hoop over the top? Your character leans on it while he's talking to someone.

How the driver sits in it? "John lay back and wondered what he'd get for lunch, as the seat rose to meet him and its belts wound languidly over his chest and legs." (Of course you have multipoint belts which fasten themselves. :)

  • neat. But it only hovers. And this is only in a couple of scenes. The other times that anything like this is seen is when the main enemy comes scooting in on a hover scooter. – Aspen the Artist and Author Apr 25 '18 at 21:24
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    Then describe him parking it, however it gets from hover to stationary. And describe it from his point of view, not ours. We don't talk about cars by describing the 4-stroke cycle and the structure of a radial tyre - we talk about speed and lines and cornering, and about what the choice of car says about the owner. Is this car a top-end sports model which he polishes every Sunday? Is he driving the equivalent of a Prius, with environmental credit? Or is he stuck with an elderly ground-effect hover because he can't afford anything that'll reach the freeways on hover altitudes 2 and 3? – Graham Apr 25 '18 at 21:37

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