We don’t describe things anymore.

‘Words cannot describe…’

I know you’ve heard this phrase before. Hell, you’ve probably used it a few times. I know I have.

I hate this phrase because it’s a blatant lie. Words are powerful and descriptive beyond what we’ve even accomplished with them so far. It’s one thing to use this in everyday speech, but to used this phrase in any piece of creative literature is a serious crime. We are writers. Our job is to describe things. We need to reach into the mortar between the bricks and show our readers the texture, we need to illustrate the way each cherry blossom falls to the ground, we need to take them to Venice and let them smell it for themselves.

In fact, I rarely see that in writing these days, either published or personal. For the most part, artists seem to describe things in vague, simple ways. Words like ‘amazingly, extremely, incredibly, unbelievably, fantastic, unimaginable (unimaginable? Really?)’

The list goes on and on, and sometimes they get a little more creative and use words like ‘breathtaking’ and ‘riveting’. These words are the constant victims of hyperbole, and are used far too often to excuse the writer from actually describing something. Most of the time, when I read something more ‘modern’ I am left with a very vague idea of what the artist was trying to say, with some generic images floating in my head as my brain struggles to understand what exactly was so ‘amazing’ about the scene sprawled out before the main character.

If Dante had really wanted to, he could have summed up Hell in one word. ‘Horrifying’. And that would actually be a pretty accurate summation of the place he created. But Dante decided instead to take us, circle by circle, torture my torture, down to the very bottom of hell.  Try to paint the Aurora Borealis, try to make the reader truly understand the awe they might feel if they actually saw a fleet of airships flying over the city.

Using the phrase ‘words cannot describe’ is an excuse for hyperbole. With enough time, with enough words and with enough imagination, you can describe anything.

Next time you write something, think of your reader as being blind, because they truly cannot see the world you’ve created in your head. If you want them to think it’s simply ‘incredible’ than tell them that, but the chances are much greater that you want them to understand why it’s incredible, and therefore you must describe to them, piece by piece, what your world looks like and how it works.

One thought on “We don’t describe things anymore.

  1. You are absolutely right about this. I blindly accepted that words could only carry you into a world so far before getting choked back by the leash of ethereal complexity. But, I was wrong. There is enough versatility in words and how we use them to describe anything — it’s just bloody difficult to accomplish.

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