Shun beautiful writing done for beauty’s sake

Ever read a beautiful image in a story but then ask yourself, “So what?”

If so, you’ve probably been a victim of the “foreground to” trick. Coined by CSFW’s Sarah Smith, “foreground to” occurs when you draw attention to some object in your story purely for artistic effect.

A type of card tricks in the dark, it’s just another way of showing off. Consider this example:

He stood 5-foot-11 and had a vicious mustache.

Sure, it’s descriptive – and vicious mustache sounds cool with its use of alliteration and assonance – but it doesn’t move the story forward. First, 5-foot-11 is an average height, so there’s nothing remarkable about it and probably would only need of appear if the author wanted to show that the person was average; but vicious mustache instead suggests an atypical character. In giving the height, the author merely appears to want to demonstrate to the reader that he’s done his due diligence and thought about what the character looks like. Secondly, the purpose of vicious mustache appears to be simply to show that the author is capable of creating a poetic-sounding image. After all, exactly what is a vicious mustache?

To be effective, an image or description – like every other word in the story – should serve a purpose. For example, it might be used to develop a character by offering descriptions that manifest personality traits. Or it might be used to set atmosphere and mood. Or it might be used for thematic purposes, such as drawing parallels between two objects so as to show how a situation is analogous.

But to do it solely to demonstrate you’re capable of writing a pretty simile or description isn’t a great idea.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.