“Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.” Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
I can’t think of many readers – and I include myself amongst their number – who open a work of fiction in the hope of perusing pages upon pages of description.
And yet whenever a story comes to me it never takes the shape of words alone, it visits as a whole scene: scents, images, sounds and textures alike. For my readers to feel at home in the stories I write, I have to make the effort to translate what I see, give them enough of the world I envisaged for them to be able to make it their own. All this of course, in the hope that they will want to stay.
Description brings both the settings of our stories and the characters therein to life. In many respects the setting itself is another character in the story and it needs conflict and tension to breathe alive. It craves influence.
#1 Know your setting intimately:
Listen into its everyday rhythms, its smells and sounds. Get a feel for its weather patterns. Make a sketch of buildings, fauna and flora that make it distinct. And just like any other character, the setting will relate to others. It may affect their moods and behaviour, and at times it may even reflect their temperament.
Some places are such an ingrained part of our identity that it is almost impossible to detach and commit them to paper. The attempts feel intrusive: as if we were carving out pieces of our own selves. If that holds true of us, then it must be also true of our characters. In describing the spaces they inhabit, we lend them weight and substance. Yet how does one decide what to describe and where to remain silent?
#2 Be selective about the details: make them allude.
A telling detail will always trump pages of flourish description. It will tell the reader everything they need to know about a character or a place, pull them into the story and make it vivid, while remaining unobtrusive.
Some authors are more generous in their descriptions, others almost spartan. My own approach is one of light brushstrokes. I always try to give the reader enough so that they can get a feel for the place where the action or dialogue takes place and for the characters within, but not so much that they would stop and think: “Aha! Here’s the description.”
No matter how wonderful a passage of description or characterisation might appear at first glance, if it stops me in my tracks on a second reading and I find myself gloating with a poetic turn of phrase or gushing over an exquisite sentence, then I know that it will have to go. Or at the very least it will have to be retired for a story that would allow it relative anonymity.
#3 Aim for specific detail and avoid the generic:
“It was a dark and stormy night” may well have appeared florid even to the 19th century reader who first opened Bulwer-Lytton’s novel. What if the storm were announced by the “parched creak of a door” or “the incessant sigh of the wind” as it does in one of John Le Carre novels instead?
When done well, description will ground both action and dialogue. Characters will no longer be spectres who speak and act in a void. The edges of their physical world will no longer be indistinct and their own bodies and personalities too will gain sharper contours.
#4 Add mood and tone through the use of the senses:
Sight and sound, taste and texture – all serve a double duty. They don’t only enliven a scene or a fragment of dialogue. More than describe, every one of them can offer a sense of who the characters are and how they relate to the world they inhabit. This allows characters to transcend the fictive reality and become – to the reader at least – real people. After all, the suspension of disbelief is what all authors strive towards.
#5 Use description to deepen key scenes:
Description can be a great aid to setting the pace. Key scenes often require a slowing down of pace. Since the reader has been building up to them for pages on end, these are the moments they want to savour, really be there alongside the characters they are rooting for. Each key beat, each turning point allows the author greater leniency when it comes to description.
Yet no setting, no matter how detailed its exposition and no character description, however masterfully handled, can supplant the rich imagination that a reader will bring to the page. No two people will see the same hillside, abandoned cottage or factory furnace. No two passionate mouths or sylph-like figures will be the same in the eye of the beholder. Each and every one of us will bring our own furniture to the set and populate even the most exotic of locations and radiant faces with that which feels familiar.
The skill of the author then lies not in the number of details provided, but rather in how those details are woven into the fabric of the story, so that – while seeming subordinate to the rest – they offer a deep sense of place.
Here are a few passages of description that I am particularly fond of because they do more than offer information, rather they entrap one into a sensual experience of (both) place and people.
“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop… [s]omehow it was hotter then… bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. … There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.” Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
“…it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion. There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all round me, and I felt a tremendous shock- no pain, only violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shrivelled up to nothing. The sand bags in front of me receded into immense distance.” George Orwell, describing his experience of being hit by a bullet in the Spanish Civil War.
“Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
“I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: the middle one grey, and half buried in the heath; Edgar Linton’s only harmonised by the turf and moss creeping up its foot; Heathcliff’s still bare.
I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.” Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights