Applied description: a demonstration

This is not a tutorial.  It’s not a how-to article.  This is just me, showing you the way I look at writing.  It is blatantly opinionated and didactic.  You are free to agree, disagree or ignore as you chose.

I recently critted a story that opened like this.

Birds played and chirped among the young leaves of the big elm tree in the front yard. Blue skies highlighted a greening landscape of a small midwestern town. The scent of freshly mowed grass permeated the cool air.  Michael moved…

And a  novel that contained:

Crickets chirped, as a light breeze blew on a beautiful night.  The palm trees swayed like windshield wipers.

There are three reasons I don’t like these passages.

  1. They tell us nothing about the setting.  The description is so generic as to be meaningless.
  2. They tell us nothing about the mood.  Should we be happy, sad, scared?  I’ll go for indifferent.
  3. They tell us nothing about the character and who they are.

So what could the writer do?

In my opinion, sentences that are purely description should be ruthlessly culled from the second draft.  It’s all too easy to describe every part of your scene in minute detail and bore your reader to tears in the same moment.

Description is a tool.  Used wisely, it can show your reader so much more than the landscape.  Used poorly, it can drown your narrative.

So, the demonstration part.  Here’s our opening scene; a carnival.

(Image courtesy of Luis Vallecillo and used under a Creative Commons License.)

We could open like this:

Between the crowds the dancers leaped and spun, costumes glittering, skin shiny with sweat, feathers tipped with fire from the afternoon sun.  Light bounced off the buildings and sent long shadows streaming into the crowd.  Men drank beer and sweated; women fanned themselves and called their children back in tired voices.

Yeah, I’m bored too.  While it’s perfectly functional, it doesn’t give the reader a glimpse into the story.  And from here, we could go anywhere.  Two strangers could lock gazes across the street and fall instantly in love.  An assassin could stalk between the wilting crowd, the gun beneath his coat hard against his ribs.  A battered wife could look past the dancers and see either hope or despair in the setting of the sun, and make a decision that could change her life.

So lets introduce some people into our opening scene.

Lucy pulled the collar of her dress away from her neck, but no cooling breeze touched her skin.  The heat didn’t seem to bother the dancers who gyrated just metres in front of her, flashes of colour and life in between the dreary shops.

“What’s this dance?” she asked their guide Mica.

“Samba.”

The word meant nothing to her.  Her gaze drifted across the crowd, all of them in shorts and open shoes.  She shifted in her polyester dress, wondered what it would be like to wear a tiny bikini with sparkling sequins?  But she would never have the courage.

The dancers came together in a sensuous partnership and she blushed.  Why, why had she thought this holiday was a good idea?  Oh yes.  Kevin.  She needed to forget about Kevin.

Kevin would love this, would be laughing and cheering with the rest of the crowd while she stood beside him and blushed.

Same info; it’s hot, there are dancers in tiny, beautiful costumes.  But now we know what sort of story it is, and who is telling it.  The description has become part of the story.

Next character:

Jason let his gaze slide across the shimmering bodies, maintaining a vacant leer like most of the the men in the crowd.  A flash of light caught his eye, but it was only sunlight glancing off sequins.  He turned away, raised his camera and scanned the crowd on the other side through its lens.  A face caught his attention and he paused for a moment, snapped a shot and moved away.

He took a few more shots of the dancers, carefully focusing past them on the angular face of one particular woman and the two men beside her.  The sun on the back of his neck burned like fire and he knew he would be lobster-red by the time he finished.  But he was not about to abandon his position, not with Fraulein Nadetta just across the street, and oblivious to him.

He lowered his camera, and then felt something sharp poke him in the back.  He swung around, looked down at a street urchin’s wide grin.

“You owe me.  Ten dollars.  Pay up, Americano.”

Damn.

Two different characters, two different types of story.  Same setting.  But I bet you can tell me a lot about the story to come from each of these passages, and I bet you would be right.

Because description, on its own, is a waste of words.  It’s not part of the story, but outside it.  Only when the descriptions tells us more than location and detail does it become useful, and powerful.  The details that your characters choose to notice tell the reader so much more than a shopping list of features.

However, there are occasions for opening with plain description; when you want to drop the reader into a sensory wonderland that brings the theme of the story alive.

Contrast the passages at the beginning of the post with this:

The weeds crackled in the summer heat, like tinder, brittle and brown. They swayed back and forth against grasshoppers popping toward the sky. The air smelled like gasoline.

What the writer has done here is paint a picture with words, leaving the reader sweating and wishing for a cool drink.  The passage is alive and brings the setting to life with precise, specific detail.  (If you want to read more, this excerpt is from a flash fiction piece by Michelle Davidson Argyle.)  This is description doing a day’s work.

In my opinion, this is the only way that description should be used on its own.

Think about your last piece of writing.  Think about how you used description.  Did you list the features of your scene at the beginning, and then ignore it?  Or did you weave the setting neatly through the narrative, using those details to bring your story to life?

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22 thoughts on “Applied description: a demonstration

  1. I very much prefer description as filtered through the lens of the characters. This tells us as much about the characters as the setting, and draws the reader in much more effectively. Description, otherwise, can too easily become white noise.

    Well said, Merrilee.

  2. I ran an experiment and almost everyone preferred the scene with less description.
    I agree, only include what’s important to the story.
    I rewrote a story and dropped almost all the description and it reads so much better, but here and there I threw in a few key things for people to latch onto.
    One thing I’ve learned recently is that it’s a nice touch to include description that *changes*, so that the reader might notice something different the next time you return to that setting.
    So if you did describe the dancers, it’s only because later on a bunch of street gangs will show up, and the characters may notice a growing danger.

  3. Very good point. In reflection, I have made those very same errors. Adding description then not going back to the scene. Pointless waste of words. Not forgetting the reader would have shot themselves in the head with boredom.

    Another ‘star’ in Google Reader for you.

  4. Great post! I tend to agree, and while I am sure I’m guilty of using description in the wrong way at times (or not enough in general, is often a complaint I hear), I prefer stories that are stripped of the excess, where everything builds on the story itself.

    • There’s a fine balance between not enough and too much, and different readers demand different amounts! Which is why there is such a proliferation of styles in published works. Which is a good thing! Something for everyone :)

  5. Oh, now that’s nice. You linkied my blog and pimped Michelle’s writing all in the same sentence. Thanks!

    And, let me say, regarding your opening disclaimer: I much prefer blatantly opinionated and didactic rants to milquetoast, “maybe this, maybe that” equivocation. Ptooey to that.

    Plus, I agree. Flat out. Description must be spot on, specific, or loaded with meaning. Sho nuff.

    • I think somewhere along the way, some how-to-write book (that should be collected and mass-pulped) told writers they needed to describe their setting in intimate detail. Things went downhill from there.

  6. I have always had a lot of trouble because most people who read my work want to start at, “Birds chirped in the trees, lions and elephants roamed freely…” Okay that’s an exaggeration, but very good not how-to.

    • It’s a bit hard when readers have a certain expectation based on cliche. But there it is the writer’s job to break away from expectations and deliver something eye-opening :)

      Keep doing what you are doing!

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