There is a piece of advice that goes something along the lines of – you’re running for your life, legs aching, lungs dragging down air so fast it turns to fire, the terminator, placid, unstoppable, zeroing in on you – so why the frick are you stopping to describe the blooming roses?
The meaning simple- actung! baby, not description, is what makes the story.
And it seems that it is being embraced wholesale.
I recently saw a writing forum poo poo a classic – award winnng story – for daring to open with a paragraph of description. And then upon a recommendation by one of those writers, I read yet another best-selling Dystopia where my immediate thought was, but what does the place look like? There were a few idle facts thrown around – a reference to colours being frowned upon, trees being confined to the nurseries. Facts do not build worlds. We were given the feelings of this kid, delivered in the expected form of actions – ie dry mouth, clammy hands, knotting stomach – I’m surprised it didn’t have its own scout badge it went through so many knots.
It might have been rectified later on, but when I am left without a concrete sense of the world, a place to set the characters and their knotting stomachs, it doesn’t feel like I have been given anything to invest in.
When I think of some of the worlds that entranced me as a kid – from the faraway tree to Hogwarts to the lamppost and wardrobe of Narnia – they create instant, vivid pictures in my mind too many years later to count (really I don’t have that many fingers 😀 ). The worlds were always an integral part of the draw, the words a wardrobe all of my own.
Returning to the recent recommendation, it certainly provoked questions. There was a bus – what kind of bus? They have technology – is this a remnant of an old world? Are there other vehicles on the street? Is it a city? There is a reference to a square – names being called – how many are gathered? Is there a loudspeaker? A mic? Is it televised? It created an odd sensation not unlike when you watch an old episode of a sci-fi show and they land on a planet which seems to consist of two streets and a half dozen people, only three of whom can apparently speak. You know what you are seeing is the limits of a set, a budget which can only pay for a couple of extra actors, that even on that one street the doors led to an empty lot, the walls are made of cardboard. The wonder of books was there were – are – no limits. We could build cities with billions of inhabitants, float them on the backs of giant turtles and feel the warm smoothness of the shell beneath our bare feet. But apparently we’ve decided the power of imagination lies in constructing white rooms.
It seems to have followed on from the oft cited ‘show don’t tell’ mantra that has resulted in the belief that story is action and action is all readers – modern readers – want. Description like adverbs has become a dirty word: a ‘tell’. We’ll just skip right over the irony of this, bewildering though it is, and look at how it ignores the fact that action – in terms of a fast paced, page turning story – is in actuality an effect, one that is created through many different elements and specifically how you use those. Description doesn’t just tell us what stuff looks like, it plays a vital part in creating suspension of disbelief, grounding the reader in the virtual world and making us care. It is far from the only thing working to achieve this – pov, dialogue, character, all play their part amongst others and some it might be argued, a more important one. But you should never underestimate the visual nature of most readers. Giving them the right details to build a picture does so much more than tell us the colour of the bricks.
As see in the story poo poo’d by the writing site, it can create a mood and set the tone for the entire piece.
The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish oil stench of melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat-and-snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burnt cooking fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air. Lingering odors of machine oil contrasted sharply with the taint of harness dressing and leather. Yet, somehow, through all that reek…came another taint. It was a queer, neck-ruffling thing, a faintest suggestion of an odor alien among the smells of industry and life. ~ Who Goes There, John Campbell
It can foreshadow coming events, for example when a characters description is at odds with their role, as we see in the introduction of the Mayor of Ember.
His grey drooping face appeared to be made of something stiffer than ordinary skin it rarely oved except for making the smile that was on it now ~ City of Ember, Jeanne Duprau
It can provide points of resonance; small seemingly insignificant details can build a bridge between reader and character, evoking a sense of nostalgia or affection, a kind of ‘my granny had one just like that’ effect.
I watched resignedly as Una Alconbury’s form – intriguingly deformed through the ripply glass door – bore down on me in a fuschia two-piece ~Bridget Jones Diary, Helen Fielding.
It certainly isn’t about volume. There is definitely a knack to knowing when and where to expand. Description can aid our sense of tension and pace. In ‘The Regulators’ King opens with a description of summer, a description that gets repeated ad naseum, as he carefully introduces each character on that ill-fated street and yet initially barely makes mention of the red van. And even, when it finally begins its fatal round, the emphasis is still on the hot summer day, the ordinary machinations of the ordinary people on this ordinary street.
‘the red van – if that’s what is is, it’s so gaudy and customised it’s hard to tell – turns on to Poplar. It begins to pick up speed The sound of its engine is a cadenced silky whisper. And what pray tell, is that chrome gadget on the roof?’
We hand off to Johnny watching, Brad hosing his lawn.
‘Arrows of sun glint of the bright red paint and the chrome below the dark windows, arrows so bright they make Johnny wince.’
Then we are with David as he eagerly soaps up his car.
‘The Red van rolls past him, humming and glinting’
Then the twins..
And so on, slowly gathering momentum, like a car crash in slow motion, building to the inevitable, expected horror, reminding you with each paragraph of how very every day – sunny summer every day – this is, heightening the effect, unrolling the horror before a single ugly word.
Interestingly King’s advice from On Writing is often quoted as an argument for the current less is more approach;
‘Description should begin in the writer’s imagination and end in the readers’
The central notion being that we should trust our readers to fill in the gaps, that we are inherently patronising them by not letting their imagination do the work. This not only seems to be a little like suggesting Van Gogh should have left some of the sunflowers out of his vase – surely one was enough to make his point – it runs contrary to everything I feel as a reader. I know my imagination, I have unlimited access to it at all times, I read to discover what lies hidden in another’s. And to be inspired by their vision.
This doesn’t mean all description is good description. Concrete details are what mark it out from nebulous feelings and impressions and allow us to build, but some writers take it to a clinical degree, none perhaps more famously than Dan Brown.
Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered trhough the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand gallery. .. grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six year old man heaved the masterpiece..’ ~ The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown
Another thriller writer who has done very well for himself opened with an assassination in a tropical marina. He gave me longitude, latitude, metric length of the yacht, horse power, temperature of the water and wind speed, what he didn’t give me was any spine shivering sense of danger in the velvet warmth and sultry dark of the tropics.
My personal pet peeve is the apologetic approach. Where the reader has sneaked an odd detail or two in, almost as though they are saying, ‘just let me have this one, I promise it’ll barely slow you down. It’s just a word.’
‘She tossed her long auburn locks over her shoulder and peered closer at the ancient-and-totally-what-this-sentence-is-really-all-about artefact’
I can actually remember being taught to do this. Age 10. What our teachers were trying to show us was how to blend description with action. And that blending of elements is vital to good writing. As we have already seen description is never just doing one thing, but the sort of blending we did age 10, should not resemble the kind we are doing age ‘grown up’. Certainly not age ‘published author.’
And we should never ever be approaching this, or any other aspect, apologetically. Everything in your book should be there because you believe it needs to be there. The reader has put their trust in you, don’t ask their permission to tell your story.
‘She tossed her silky hair over her shoulder before leaning in for a closer look. A wave of coconut shampoo delicately edged in deep fried chicken assaulted his eager, quivering nose. It took all of his willpower not to grab a fistful of those perfect, fiery locks and start licking. He really needed some lunch.’
So the next time your character is running for their life, lungs burning, terminator on their heels, think of this and give them permission to smell the roses. If nothing else, they’re being chased by the Terminator, its likely going to be the very last time they ever get to smell the roses..