Here’s a glacier melting on Mount Rainier, where I went hiking in August 2016.
I’m a sucker for descriptions that absorb me. I live for the moments when a story’s language inhales me and I lose myself breathing in another world’s air. Whether beautiful, strange, luminous, or disturbing, a skillful descriptive passage settles on the reader’s skin like a petal, a feather, a cobweb…or a knife. Description sets a mood–in gossamer, in mud, in blood. It establishes character and voice. It provides plot with an evocative place to hang out (even if it’s just passing through). Description deepens everything: people, places, plots, and the reader’s experience.
Description can also be dangerous for writers. It can tempt you to linger where the story wants, needs to gallop forward. It can bog you down in details the characters (and readers) don’t need to know. It can pull the story-curtain aside and reveal the writer at play, so caught in his/her own dazzling web that the words shout, “Narrator here!”
I’ve always sought to create the kinds of description that entrance me, but like any apprentice writer, sometimes I’ve become so captivated by the magic that the words shove the story aside. It’s a blessing to have words for everything, but when they grow wild and too tangled and prickly to pass through, you must prune them. (It takes bravery to wield your clippers before a seven-foot-high description hedge equipped with thorns. The words don’t always take kindly to being snipped out!)
Over time, and through guidance from veteran writers, I’ve learned to channel my enthusiasm for describing…at least when it comes time to edit a wild and wooly draft. So grab something you’re ready to revise, pick up your pruners and gardening gloves, and if you wish to add anything to these tips, please do share!
Carter Falls in Mt. Rainier National Park, August 2016
Don’t throw in that kitchen sink!
When I began writing novels as a teenager, I assumed you had to describe everything. My first novel opened with my protagonist, Dar, looking out his kitchen window while washing dishes. The action began four pages later, when Dar spots the father he thought had abandoned his family, struggling up the path to his house against a windy downpour, leading a child Dar has never met.
Between Dar’s first glance out the window and the moment his father and the kid lurch into view, I described the kitchen walls, furniture, pots and pans, floor, the food cooking on the stove, and how the rain outside cast a gloomy light over everything. Moreover, the house’s dismal state of repair and the murky light reflect Dar’s inner state. The mood and the verbiage are both deep and heavy, and the story struggles to rise from this descriptive morass.
Part of the problem was that I gave everything equal weight: I spent just as much time recounting how he got the raincoat he puts on to meet his father as I did describing his father. The sausages he’s cooking get equal billing with the reunion.
Description, like attention, is selective. An effective description highlights what’s important to the characters and their story. It also sets the emotional tone for that scene. This occurs through judicious seasoning with details. The same way as dumping a whole spice canister into your soup overwhelms the other flavors, shaking too much descriptive “seasoning” onto a scene smothers the main dish: your story’s direction.
An English hornbeam tree along a path in the New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY
Wandering down the garden path
Imagine taking a walk down a country lane: you watch the tall grass waving, you smell the wildflowers’ faint scents, you roll up your sleeves to feel the warm breeze stroke your skin. You’re just strolling along, soaking up that surfeit of sensory input, thinking about the path not as a means to a destination but as a journey, a process, an experience.
This is terrific for your personal development but deadly for stories.
Life becomes richer and more meaningful when we savor our experiences rather than focusing narrowly on goals. Stories operate differently. Life thrives on garden-path exploration. Stories are juggernauts, plummeting downhill toward a crash, an altercation, a life-changing revelation. Most of our real-life puttering and ambling doesn’t make it onto the page because an enjoyable life translates into a boring story. We’re left with the heights and the abysses.
Meandering country-lane descriptions plagued the beginnings of my stories, and I know I’m not the only one. But an opening scene needs to do more than give the reader a panorama shot. It needs to grab the reader’s hand and pull them along, not on a ramble but a brisk trot toward Destiny. This doesn’t mean your description has to be terse and minimalist. It does mean that it must contribute to the story’s forward (inward, downward) motion.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, August 2016
Voice and Description: Avoiding Authorial Intrusion
Aspiring writers hear a lot about voice. Agents admit to swooning over a distinctive voice, which makes the difference between asking the writer for the rest of the book and sending one of those “sorry, but not for us” form responses. Voice is key to the deep point of view, which gives the reader the feeling that they’re not just riding shotgun with a character, but getting inside the character’s mind and heart.
When descriptions emerge from a character’s personhood rather than the writer’s sense of what sounds cool, poetic, or profound, they emerge as the writer would think or say them, using his/her vocabulary, knowledge and skill base, experiences, cultural background, etc. A stonemason looks at a dry-stone wall differently than a grocer would: with a specialized vocabulary, an understanding of how it was put together, a feel for the stone and the tools and whether or not it’s safe to stand on top of that wall. This is why it’s crucial to write about what you know, either directly through experience or indirectly through research. If on a whim you decide your main character is a stonemason and you don’t work with stone or do any research on it, the language won’t come out authentic and knowledgeable readers will wince (and put the book down).
I believe writers can solve many of our description problems by remembering that descriptions need to come through the viewpoint character’s sensibility rather than the writer’s. Any time you go over your work and read something that sounds “writerly” rather than natural, you’ve likely slipped out of your character’s head and back into your own, and the reader will do that too–but for readers, that’s a jarring change that can yank them right out of the story. Sadly, these writerly moments often contain our pet passages, puffed up with personal preoccupations perched on purple prose. If you’d rather save your darlings than execute them, consider whether you could convey the image or idea in a way the character would express it.
I don’t advocate one style or volume of description over another. Crisp reportage can work just as well as lush lingering. Your choice depends on your preference and the character through whom you deliver your narrative.
Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, December 2016
Too Much Weight: Description and the Theme or Moral
The final descriptive difficulty I wish to address arises from the story’s under-layer, where meaning and purpose dwell. Most stories convey a theme, and in the most artful ones, the writer discovers the theme as the first draft unfolds. (If the theme appears in the writer’s mind before the story, there’s the tendency to create those tiresome didactic stories which sermonize rather than entertain.)
Themes can manifest in descriptions. Whenever a refrain appears in the work, and when the description moves past the literal level (a room, an outdoor scene, a person, an object) to the figurative, you can be sure thematic resonances are welling up to the surface. But the writer needs to tread lightly when the subterranean waters start bubbling up. It’s easy to get heavy-footed and start bashing themes into the story’s soil with a mallet instead of letting them trickle up from below, where readers can choose to wet their toes in them or to leap over them.
Description can become overburdened under layers of metaphor, which is what happens to saplings when a heavy, wet snowfall drags their branches down. If a friendly hiker comes by and shakes off the snow, the trees spring back. If the snow freezes over, and more piles on, and nobody comes by, and the trees are forced to wait for the next thaw to melt all that snow, they may get stuck all slumped over and contorted and end up growing that way. Don’t let that happen to your story “sapling”! Let the symbolism rest lightly, like snowflakes, not like snowpack. The reader will glory in the glitter that shines off them when the sun of their attention hits the words just right.
Gulp…oh no, I let the metaphor get away from me. Sorry. (Dusting off snow.)
South Kaibab Trail, December 2016
I’ll end by encouraging you not to be afraid to invoke description’s power. The wonderful thing about revising is that, should you find the story getting buried under all those wonderful words, you can always shake some off and watch how the branches spring back and flirt with the sky–lean, supple, and powerful in their purity of form.