Sunday, 2 March 2014

Cast the Eldritch Filler Out Of Your Writing

Reviewing a description I wrote this morning, I had an insight that applies just as much to my own work as to others'. It is very common in adventure writing to see a sentence like this:

"There is a strange / eerie / eldritch / curious / peculiar / etc. green porcelain urn in the middle of the room."

Leaning on synonyms of "weird" is an understandable residue of the pulp era, although Lovecraft's beloved "queer" is definitively out of play nowadays, at least in that context. But all of these words are crutches for lazy writing. I even suspect that Lovecraft's reliance on them is a strong reason why critics often judge him as a distinctive rather than good prose stylist. Consider this rewrite, which tells more and forces less on the reader:

IMPROVEMENT: "A green porcelain urn is in the middle of the room. It is lopsided, but in a spiralling way that has a certain logic to it, if not symmetry."

Much better. The description creates a vivid image, which the reader instinctively compares with the image of a normal urn. We come by the sense of weirdness through honest imagery rather than a storebought adjective.

These lazy words drive loopholes through a couple of well-known rules in writing. It's widely known by now that a writer should "show, not  tell." This is the principle behind the more specific caveat against "mental invasion" text to describe emotional or aesthetic effects in the second person (for example, "A feeling of peace comes over you as you see the unicorn cropping grass in the tranquil glade.")

But "weirdness" words belong to a class of adjectives that essentially lie. They present a subjective reaction of a human being as an objective trait of the world. There are a lot of these words in the emotion lexicon: "disgusting," "creepy," "maddening," "adorable." I think the less a writer uses them, the better. The prose becomes more alive, more muscular, more detached.

Let's see how a sample paragraph from Lovecraft would read with these terms removed or altered. From "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (which uses 25 "queers" alone, and who knows how many other synonyms...), here's a paragraph which could also stand in for a wordy description of a treasure object, with the disposable weirdness-adjectives in red...
It took no excessive sensitiveness to beauty to make me literally gasp at the strange, unearthly splendour of the alien, opulent phantasy that rested there on a purple velvet cushion. Even now I can hardly describe what I saw, though it was clearly enough a sort of tiara, as the description had said. It was tall in front, and with a very large and curiously irregular periphery, as if designed for a head of almost freakishly elliptical outline. The material seemed to be predominantly gold, though a weird lighter lustrousness hinted at some strange alloy with an equally beautiful and scarcely identifiable metal. Its condition was almost perfect, and one could have spent hours in studying the striking and puzzlingly untraditional designs - some simply geometrical, and some plainly marine - chased or moulded in high relief on its surface with a craftsmanship of incredible skill and grace.
In the first-person narration, of course, these terms are more excusable, because they can pass as the honest reaction of the narrator. But it's also striking how little they matter, except in conveying the impression of a highly excitable and creep-prone person through their nearly incantatory use -- and even then I'd say that the "literal gasp" and the "hardly describe" at the beginning are just enough to do that job, while the descriptions of the "elliptical outline" and the "scarcely identifiable metal" continue the sense of weirdness, but through description rather than authorial fiat.


  1. This is (curiously) profound. I really like the idea of the reader inferring wierdness rather than being told "its weird". But how to draw them into the right frame of mind to make the inference?
    I guess I'm asking more from a GM's perspective of live narration. I like adventure location descriptors to be written in barebones format, so that the improv narration paints the picture.
    Can you advise an un-natural narrator on what is the minimalist essential narration description needed to be able to ellicit PC emotions/feelings?

    1. Well first off, I was thinking about writing and not live gamemastering. I cut myself a lot more slack at the table because there you also have to keep on top of the players, their characters, rules, the notes, the map ... So I'm more inclined to do "lazy" descriptions live but I also find it fun to catch myself and go into depth a little more. "It's a disguting, filthy room ...." thinks ... "it smells like sour milk and pig guts, there are clumps of caked-on slime spattered on the walls and fat flies buzzing from one to the other." Your players may also help out by asking, "So how exactly is it weird?" or by inspecting closer in-character. If you're having trouble improvising that kind of content I suggest writing down the first three things that come to mind naturally, for a number of abstract concepts. Like for "weird" you might come up with "tentacles .. eyeballs .. fractals." Then you can more readily come up with a go-to filler-in at the table.

  2. I also enjoyed this post. I think the reader (player) is drawn into the right frame by a slow build up or repeated (expected or not) encounters with weirdness.

    Take the urn in the OP, not especially weird on it's own. But if pc's sporadically encounter similar art/design and slowly come to learn it usually heralds/follows/accompanies ....

  3. Comparable to the show don't tell rule? "Weird" is more telling, since people define it differently. It's rather subjective and ambiguous (more so than vague). Your changes increase objectivity and "showing".

  4. I was saddened that you didn't specifically list "indescribable", which I thought was universally acknowledged as the classic Lovecraft cop-out/joke.

    An author may be looking to provoke the reader's imagination to fill in descriptive gaps, and while a GM may want to do that too, it's more of a potential problem in a game:

    "There is a strange / eerie / eldritch / curious / peculiar / etc. green porcelain urn in the middle of the room."

    "I'll snag one of the handles with the hook at the end of my 10' pole"

    "It doesn't have any handles"

    "You might have mentioned that..."

  5. I am guilty of using vague filler sometimes when I DM and often when I write. I want to improve my writing and this is the kind of thing I bookmark and put in my "writing ideas/advice" folder. Some part of my mind is aware when I do use filler but your article may help me spot it more consistently.