Use similes and metaphors to aid description

Several years ago, Margie Lawson taught a workshop put on by the Florida Writers Foundation in advance of the annual Florida Writers Association Conference. Margie teaches about the need to delve deep into character emotion to reach readers. When, at the end of the course, she asked what most struck us, the fellow sitting behind me said “I need to learn to cut loose with the metaphors.”

I don’t know whether he is also a recovering journalist, but he’s right.

Comparisons and similes are used to engage readers.

A farm boy. Poor. Poor and perfect. With eyes like the sea after a storm.—The Princess Bride, William Goldman

When Buttercup describes Westley’s eyes this way, she’s using a powerful simile that even echoes the backstory, because she believes he was killed while at sea.

Photo by Victor Silva •

Photo by Victor Silva •

Metaphors can be used the same way. Rage can be a volcano. A storm cloud is a menacing monster. Don’t be afraid to use similes and metaphors like this. They can be particularly effective when they reflect the viewpoint character’s background as when, in one of my stories, a veterinarian sees a shocked woman’s eyes as “showing too much white, like those of a spooked horse.”


Another good way to help readers envision story elements is to use comparisons. So for example, if a country boy goes to the big city and sees a skyscraper for the first time, he might compare it to a mountain or cliff.

In a fantasy or science fiction story, made-up creatures should be compared to things a reader can mentally conjure. A large animal might be described as three times the height of a man.

Comparisons can also solve the problem of describing the viewpoint character from her own point of view. We don’t often think about our own looks, but we do compare ourselves to others. Perhaps the hero meets a fellow taller and heavier than himself. Or the heroine meets a girl who is thinner and has longer hair. The comparison—whether positive or negative in the character’s thinking, will not only help the reader create a mental image, but will give a glimpse into the character’s personality as well.

Give richer descriptions of important things

One key to having an appropriate amount of description in your story is proportion. The amount of time you spend describing an object should be relative to its story purpose.

Settings and objects are described in proportion to their importance.

It’s easy to spend lots of time describing the places, objects, and people you can visualize clearly, and to gloss over the things you’re fuzzy about. But if you’re fuzzy, the reader will be, and that’s not what we want. Instead, provide rich descriptions of things that are important to the story, and gloss over the things that are incidental. Continue reading

Use description to engage the reader

Description is a necessary element of fiction, but people differ greatly on how much is enough and how much is too much. When you show your draft to critique partners and beta readers, you may get wildly different evaluations about how you’re doing on this point. I recently finished the first draft of the second book in the Prophet’s Chronicle series. Of one particular scene, I had one critique partner say the description ran too long and he started skimming. Another thought it was beautiful and poetic, and she loved it.

Nevertheless, there are a few things we can say about description that hold true across genres and writing styles.

Each scene includes a baseline descriptor to aid the reader.

Even if you’re a minimalist writer, give the reader enough to ground them in the scene. This can be as simple as the living room, the outer bailey, Space Station K-7. Continue reading

Em Dashes in Dialogue

Last time, we looked at using ellipses in your dialogue. Up next: em dashes.

Punctuation such as em dashes and ellipses are used correctly.

using quotation marks

© AKS –

The em dash—it looks like this—is used to indicate a break of thought or speech. It can be used parenthetically, as in the previous sentence, or singly, for example if a character changes topic mid-sentence.

“The next slide shows the third quarter—no, sorry, that’s the wrong slide.”

It can also be used to show an interruption. Continue reading

Using Ellipses in Dialogue

Punctuation is hard to master in everyday writing. Fiction adds a layer of complexity because of the different way dialogue is punctuated. As if commas weren’t hard enough to wrangle on their own, dialogue puts a special twist on a couple of marks that don’t otherwise see a lot of use.

Punctuation such as em dashes and ellipses are used correctly.

In nonfiction writing, ellipses are used only to show omissions. But they have a special use in dialogue to indicate a trailing off of the character’s speech.

using quotation marks

© AKS –

Remember our flustered presenter from last time?

“I guess …” she clicked around, vainly searching for the right version. “Looks like … I think I misplaced the new version.”

Continue reading

Use speech and action to convey emotion

Many new writers—and, frankly—some experienced writers—take a short cut in first draft writing by using labels to convey emotion. Do what you must to get through the first draft, but our editing pass is the time to root those things out and replace them with something meaningful.

Emotional states are shown through speech and action rather than dialogue tags.

This item happens to be under Dialog only because tags are where this often shows up. But emotion labeling can occur in narrative also. Sometimes, you do just need to drop a label in, but more often, it’s best to use the dialog and action to convey the emotion. A first draft might look something like this: Continue reading

Use dialogue tags wisely

Dialogue tags seem simple, but in practice they are a complex element that many new writers fail to appreciate. One characteristic that distinguishes great writing from good writing is the efficient and elegant use of dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags convey meaningful information, such as action beats.

One of the first things writers learn is that a simple he said is almost always preferable to more complex constructions like he pronounced or she observed. I only put that almost in there because I’m not one to forbid something outright. But really, the best writers just don’t do that.

dialogue tags

© Scanrail •

Some editors advise against using all speech verbs except said and asked, but that’s going too far. Speech verbs exist for a reason, and can be used judiciously. Just remember they are like spice. Use sparingly. Continue reading