Describing Dogs

I’ve been rereading [1] Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens in advance of the mini-series dropping on Amazon Prime, and I ran across a wonderful bit of description, which I’ll share in just a bit.

Description has always been a challenge for me. I’m strong on dialog—that probably comes from my theatre background—and I feel comfortable with character and plot, though that may just be arrogance. Or ignorance. Description always feels like a necessary evil, like eating broccoli or flossing. As a consequence, my description tends to be very workmanlike—literal rather than evocative.

Example: I’m stuck on a bit in my novel where the protagonist encounters a dog that’s gone feral. I lay out, in excessive detail, its looks and manner, its breed, the length and condition of its fur, its distinguishing marks. Everything but the number of legs. It reads like a police report. It’s not only boring, it’s a lot of extra work for the reader. 

Here’s how Gaiman and Pratchett describe a similar dog as, “… only two meals away from being a wolf.” [2]

That’s it. Done. That’s all you need to know. In one line they conjure up an image of a dangerous, hungry, nearly wild animal. Lean? Probably. Scarred? Possibly. Breed? Who cares, but probably something vaguely wolf-like. A German Shepherd or a Siberian Husky. Definitely not a Corgi. That’s a lot of work done in only eight words.

Most of the heavy lifting here is being handled by “wolf,” for which the reader presumably already has a pretty good referent. The fun comes from the  indirect comparison. The reader is asked to imagine a dog which, on the dog-wolf continuum, is closer to the wolf end. (And for extra fun, the continuum is demarcated in “meals.”) The reader has to do just enough work to get invested in the metaphor, but not so much that comprehension is impaired.

Notice that directly invoking the wolf metaphor leads to cliché, e.g. “like a wolf,” “wolf-like” or, god help you, “hungry like a wolf.” [3]

The whole novel is stuffed with clever description of this sort. A few chapters on, Gaiman and Pratchett do something similar, describing a “solid, capable, unflappable” nuclear power engineer as, “The kind of man, in fact, who gives the impression of smoking a pipe, even when he’s not.” Here the referent, a pipe-smoking man, isn’t as immediately clear. In the context of “solid, capable, unflappable,” however, it evokes qualities of thoughtfulness and an almost meditative patience.

 None of this is new, even to me. I’m just reminding myself that I’ve got access to more tools than the ones I initially reach for. I’ll never enjoy flossing, but with a bit of effort, I could have more fun with description.


1. I’m actually listening to Good Omens on Audible and enjoying it much more than my initial read in paperback. The narrator, Martin Jarvis, does a fantastic job of bringing the characters to life with distinct voices and infusing the whole thing with an appropriately dry sense of humor.

2. The actual description, of a literal hell-hound, is six paragraphs long and only uses the quoted bit to describe other dogs, to which the hound in question is being compared. My point stands. [4]

3. You might be able to score some points with “a lean and hungry look” if the dog were rebellious or an actual assassin.

4. Good Omens  is a “funny” book, which is a big part of why I didn’t really love it the first time around. When the humor works, which it often does, it’s wonderful. But  much of the humor is so inessential and unfunny that it knocks me out of the story, failing in a similar fashion to most musical theatre (with the obvious substitution of songs for “funny bits”). This is, admittedly, a minority opinion. 

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