Six impossible things

Writing Basics: Description 2

When someone says “description,” most people think of static passages – a page telling the reader details about the current setting or background, or a paragraph about a character’s appearance. This isn’t the only way to approach that sort of description, though. It is often more memorable and evocative to describe a place, person, or action through a character’s experience of it.

People interact with their environment all the time, to some degree. When a character walks into a room and the overwhelming scent of lemon furniture polish makes her sneeze, the reader knows something about the room. When she squints into the gloom and wonders why the heavy velvet curtains are closed in the middle of the day, the reader knows more. When she walks over to open the curtains and bangs into the edge of a marble-topped coffee table, bruising her shins, knocking over a silk plant in a foil-covered pot, and rattling the four porcelain statuettes on display on top of it, the reader’s mental picture gets clearer.

By the time the plastic slipcover on the couch crackles under her knee as she braces herself on it to reach the curtain cord…well, the reader may not have a clear layout of every piece of furniture in the room or know the colors of the decorating scheme, but they probably have a good idea what the place feels like. They won’t be surprised if it comes out later that there’s a carved mahogany display case crammed with knick-knacks against the far wall, and they probably wouldn’t expect three half-empty coffee cups, a banana peel, or an abstract sculpture made of gleaming steel rods.

(If you want a fun exercise to try, use the above method to describe as vividly as possible a room as experienced by a blind character, or by a character exploring in absolute pitch dark where they can’t see anything. This is a three-for-one: you get to practice doing the describe-through-experience technique, you get to practice using non-visual sense descriptions, and you get to practice characterizing the POV by what they say about the room, how they say it, and how they react to their experience.)

If the story is in first-person or tight-third-person viewpoint, this method feels particularly natural. Which brings me to my next basic point about description: Descriptive passages are part of characterizing the viewpoint character. In first-person and tight-third person, especially, what the POV character notices and how he/she chooses to describe it needs to reflect that character’s attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, and personality. A character who gardens may not be able to tell one model of car from another, but they’ll know the names of plants and weeds, and if they come from somewhere else, they’ll spot every plant that they can’t grow in their home climate even if they really don’t notice what color the house is.

In a camera-eye or omniscient viewpoint, the narrator is usually considered a neutral or objective voice, so there’s not as much characterizing going on, but there’s no reason not to make them a character with a quirky voice in his/her own right if you want. Steven Brust’s Paarfi, the omniscient narrator of Steve’s Khaavren books, most definitely has a personality and opinions, even though he’s the story teller, rather than one of the characters in the story.

The last thing I want to say about description is that places and settings are not the only things that can be described in a story. Most writers (and readers) like to have a mental image of the characters, for instance. All of the techniques for describing places apply equally to painting vivid pictures of characters, but the one about using multiple senses is woefully underused. Most authors give at least a quick visual description of height, hair and eye color, and maybe build, but when was the last time you read a description of what a character smelled like?

Description sneaks into a lot of places. Even the most dramatized action scene involves some description of where all the participants are and what they are doing, and frequently a description of the impact of the action on the surroundings – the crash when the lamp is knocked over, the smell of the gasoline that is about to explode, the bitter taste of the smoke as the hero runs from the forest fire.

The difference here is that the bits of description in an action scene are seldom bunched into a long paragraph, let alone several pages. More often, they’re a sentence or two, or just a phrase, sandwiched in between what happens to the POV character, what he/she is doing, and his/her physical and emotional reactions as the action progresses. Once in a while, a quick bird’s-eye view of a battlefield or ballroom can give the reader a better sense of the action (and its probable consequences) than several pages of whatever the hero or heroine is doing at the time, but this trick can be difficult to justify in a tight-third POV.

In all these cases, though, the tools are the same. Focus on enhancing the reader’s experience of the story (whatever that means for the particular story); use multiple senses, not just visual; break up lumps of description if possible; provide description through the viewpoint character’s experience of his/her surroundings.

Which segues reasonably well into dramatizing and narrative summary, which I’ll talk about next post.

  1. One need exercise care with the “bird’s-eye view”; how it can be used depends on point of view. Jean Auel (Clan of the Cave Bear, et al.) violated this a lot, being fundamentally in tight third-person then suddenly telling the reader about glaciers advancing across northern Europe. Such leaps are disconcerting and throws the reader out of the narrative.

  2. but when was the last time you read a description of what a character smelled like?

    One of the challenges with this is that English does not have a good range of vocabulary for describing smells — much less so than it does for visual data, certainly. So you can mention a character’s floral perfume or the tang of their after-shave, but try describing just the smell of their clean skin and you run into a word-wall pretty quickly.

    I read somewhere that this has to do with the way brains develop and babies learn language — a baby can point to a ball or a piece of cloth and get “red” or “blue”, but they can’t point to the air and get a single word for “that smell you get when the house has just been vacuumed and there’s pasta on the boil”.

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