Put your descriptive writing to work!

A few years ago I found myself in a one-day writing workshop, examining all fiction in terms of three elements: character, conflict, and description. The idea that every sentence we write is primarily serving one of these functions is perhaps reductive, but it can also help us tease out why a passage is not working, and it can help us hone our writing (particularly our descriptions, as we’ll explore below) to get the most engagement, emotion, and interest from our readers.

Let’s try a quick exercise. Take a look at this passage from Gerald Durrell’s charming My Family and Other Animals:

'Must you gulp and slush your food like that?' Larry would inquire in a pained voice, delicately picking his teeth with a match-stick.

'Eat it slowly, dear,' Mother would murmur; 'there's no hurry.'

No hurry? With Roger waiting at the garden gate, an alert black shape, watching for me with eager brown eyes? No hurry, with the first sleepy cicadas starting to fiddle experimentally among the olives? No hurry, with the island waiting, morning cool, bright as a star, to be explored? I could hardly expect the family to understand this point of view, however, so I would slow down until I felt that their attention had been attracted elsewhere, and then stuff my mouth again.

So what’s going on in the above paragraphs?

First of all, let’s boil it down by category. How much of the above passage is conflict, how much characterization, and how much description? We’ll try a ghastly table:

ConflictCharacterDescription
– “‘Must you gulp and slush your food like that?'”

– “‘Eat it slowly, dear,’ Mother would murmur; ‘there’s no hurry.'”

– “No hurry? With Roger waiting at the garden gate,”

– “No hurry,”

– “No hurry,”

– “I could hardly expect the family to understand this point of view, however, so I would slow down until I felt that their attention had been attracted elsewhere, and then stuff my mouth again.”
– “Larry would inquire in a pained voice, delicately picking his teeth with a match-stick.”– “an alert black shape, watching with eager brown eyes?”

– “with the first sleepy cicadas starting to fiddle experimentally among the olives?”

– “with the island waiting, morning cool, bright as a star, to be explored?”

You may reasonably disagree with a few of the category choices I’ve made above. However, I think there are a few useful observations here. Note first how high a proportion of the text is devoted to conflict. Now, I would readily call Durrell’s novel description-heavy, even lyrical. Yet look how, proportionally, conflict still is more prominent.

This is the first rule I can pass along for how to make your description impactful:

Less is more

Many of us are over-writers. We love to describe. We want to tell you the color of everything, and the way it flashed in the light, and don’t even get me started on the texture of the grass on my supple toes my goodness! Oh! I can’t stop!

Okay.

The idea of “less is more” in descriptive writing works another way too. Notice that while Durrell has given us only three lines of description in the above passage, it feels descriptive as a whole, and this is because the details he has chosen are just so smart. Let’s look at these side by side.

"an alert black shape, watching with eager brown eyes"

"with the first sleepy cicadas starting to fiddle experimentally among the olives"

"with the island waiting, morning cool, bright as a star, to be explored"

Notice first how Durrell doesn’t repeat himself. He’s given one line to each of three very different subjects: Roger the dog, then the nearby olive grove, and finally the island as a whole. Each line of description gives us something palpably new, some distinct reason why the torture of eating breakfast is such an outrage. Even though this is the longest paragraph in the passage (and therefore would normally slow us down [and, as I’ll discuss below, it does slow us down, and that’s important!]), the description does not drag, and that is part of its power.

Additionally, it’s important to consider what is not being described. The cicadas in the olive trees are only one detail of a much larger picture. Durrell doesn’t give us the rest but chooses one image that will evoke the feeling he hopes to convey. More of the same image doesn’t give more feeling. It just dilutes. By paring down the description, the writing stays fresh and even takes on a quality of symbolism, as each of the chosen details might conjure up more in our own minds, sparking the imagination, which is the true magic of any story.

Description = emotion

This might seem obvious, or it might seem counterintuitive. Either way, when you see how this effect works, it will make you giddy. At least it makes me giddy. The power of description is not in the images they conjure in and of themselves. Rather, strong description serves to heighten conflict-related emotion.

What does that mean? It has to do with the idea of s l o w i n g d o w n.

When we read action and conflict, we read quickly. We move from one sentence to another in an attempt to follow the story. Even if the conflict is emotionally charged, the reality is that we are consumed enough in the act of actually following the conflict that we don’t really feel it for all it’s worth.

Here’s where description comes in. Directly following a moment of conflict, add a line of description, and your reader will feel the conflict. Look at the Durrell passage again. Read it again. The first three lines, okay, we’re going along, yes Gerry wants to finish eating his breakfast but his family are slowing him down–what’s the big deal? Then you read the last paragraph.

Oh man.

It is a big deal! How on earth can I sit here eating breakfast when Roger has those EYES?! When those CICADAS ARE FLYING AROUND IN THE OLIVE TREES oh my goodness. This is where the emotion gets us. This is description pulling its weight.

To see this in action even more starkly, take a look at these two passages from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. They’re the same passage. From the first one, though, I’ve removed all the description.

It's all very well for me to think these things. But it's panic. The fact is I'm terrified.

I don't say anything.

"Close the door behind you," he says. I do it, and turn back.

"Hello," he says.

It's the old form of greeting. I can think of nothing appropriate to say in return.

I think I will cry.

There’s definite conflict here, and the pauses provided by brief actions certainly allow some room for emotion. Let’s look at the passage again now, with description restored (and bolded):

It's all very well for me to think these things, quick as staccato, a jittering of the brain. An inner jeering. But it's panic. The fact is I'm terrified.

I don't say anything.

"Close the door behind you," he says, pleasantly enough. I do it, and turn back.

"Hello," he says.

It's the old form of greeting. I haven't heard it for a long time, for years. Under the circumstances it seems out of place, comical even, a flip backward in time, a stunt. I can think of nothing appropriate to say in return.

I think I will cry.

The description shows up as the thoughts of the narrator Offred, and it serves to heighten emotion considerably. My favorite is the first one, where in a series of three images (the staccato, then a brain jittering, then jeering) Atwood moves from a neutral term, to something uncomfortable, to something cruel. She’s building the emotion for us word by word. The short “pleasantly enough” in the third paragraph is like a quick breath, just a moment away from the action, almost but not quite letting us feel. Then in the fifth paragraph, we go fully into Offred’s head for a lengthy description of the word “Hello.” Notice that this longest description comes just before the explicit emotional language, “I think I will cry.” Atwood is building up the emotion in us before she gets there, so that we feel along with Offred.

Describe in action

Let’s face it–the best sentences in any piece of writing are doing more than one job (and if you want to read a really nice discussion of this idea, check out Benjamin Markovits’s article here). The best description is not just description (and this is what makes it really finicky to dice up a passage like I have sacrilegiously done above).

For this one, let’s jump back to Durrell, at least the first two paragraphs of Durrell, and let’s see what other description is hiding right within the conflict and character sentences:

'Must you gulp and slush your food like that?' Larry would inquire in a pained voice, delicately picking his teeth with a match-stick.

'Eat it slowly, dear,' Mother would murmur; 'there's no hurry.'

With just a few well-chosen words [and it’s worth noting, although this will be another post at some point, that almost all of these are verbs], Durrell has fiddled description intimately into the other elements of the text. It’s, in a sense, hiding there, because we’ll never get bored as long as the conflict continues, yet we’re getting a vivid picture simultaneously. We learn about Gerry’s eating habits AND Larry’s attitude with “gulp” and “slush,” about Larry’s demeanor with “inquire” and “pained,” and “murmur” gives Mother a character at odds with both of her sons. Note that here again, less is more, and an explicit description of Larry as a pompous jerk would probably stilt the energy of the passage. But we don’t need that sentence anyway. We’ve already seen it.

Really long descriptive passages

Up to now, we’ve been looking at description’s function in more active parts of plot. Yet we’ve all seen (and written) the multi-paragraph descriptions that have made J.R.R. Tolkien reviled by some and beloved by others. Let’s talk about those.

Here are the first two paragraphs of Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve gone ahead and bolded what I think we can all agree are primarily descriptive sentences.

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved, but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.

Goodness gracious! Where is the less-is-more!? Where is the description-following-conflict-to-stir-emotion?! What is going on here?

The first thing I want to point out is that Tolkien’s description here is anything but conflict-free. He carefully chooses which details to tell us about Bilbo in order to paint him as a 1) controversial and 2) mysterious character. Both of these characteristics bring conflict with them. Notice that we do not [yet!] learn about Bilbo’s breakfasting habits, or the color of his eyes, or the charming architecture of his house. Tolkien chooses the details that will create the impression he wants, that will keep us reading, and that will set up his conflict well.

Big picture stuff: description in a story as a whole

How do we reconcile these long Tolkien-esque passages with the more active, briefer description of the earlier two? In truth, both My Family and Other Animals and The Handmaid’s Tale include long passages of description that I have deceitfully concealed from you.

To answer this, I’ll bring in the idea (effectively explored here) of scenes and sequels. This useful model suggests that all stories are divided into two types of passages: scenes, in which characters work to achieve a goal, and sequels, in which characters react to what has just happened and formulate a new goal. High-action page turners tend to be heavy on the scenes and light on the sequels; literary fiction tips in the opposite direction.

What does this have to do with descriptive writing? Description turns up in both scenes and sequels, but it is far more prevalent in the latter. Sequels are all about emotional reaction, and we already know that description is a powerful workhorse on that store. Sequels [as the Tolkien example above might reasonably be termed] can usefully include longer passages of emotion-building description. Scenes, on the other hand, are more likely to use sparser, embedded description and a few well-placed details at particularly emotional moments [the Atwell and Durrell passages would both fall into this category].


I hope that with these examples and analysis, we are coming to see descriptive writing in a more nuanced light. Description is beautiful, yes, and description brings the reader into the story and paints a picture in their mind, yes, it does. But description in our writing has a lot more potential to heighten conflict, embed itself within action sentences, even set up conflicts to be deepened later. Description is what makes us care about the characters and the story.

A final analogy: description is necessary, even if it must not be overdone. I think description is like salt. A little bit, and it enhances the impact of what’s already there. Too much, and you spit it out.

Thanks for reading. Hoping all is well,

Jimmy

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Put your descriptive writing to work!

Add yours

  1. Love the variety of books you draw examples from. Working on telling stories in creating my YouTube Channel, so I thought about how description is important and best in succinct phrases. Love you, Aunt Bonnie

    Like

  2. Hi Jimmy,

    With respect to your last couple of lines in your blog…ah yes, salt – my favorite ingredient! Too much and you have to spit the food out. Reminds me when Dad, trying to be helpful, put into my chicken salad 1.5 TABLESPOONS of salt rather than 1.5 TEASPOONS 😖

    Then last night, I was making something new, a YAM chili. I had most of the ingredients simmering, and all that was left to go into the pot was a can of diced tomatoes and 2 cans of drained kidney beans. Unfortunately, a LARGE can of tomato paste was still out on the counter, as earlier, I had added 1.5 tsp to the pot that the recipe called for. I told Dad I would be back in 10 minutes, but then when the timer rang, I was in the bathroom. Dad called out what needed to be done to the chili, and I called back, “add the tomatoes and beans”. Well, Dad added those two things PLUS THE ENTIRE CAN OF TOMATO PASTE! Auggghhhh! Defensively he said, “well tomato paste IS tomatoes”. 😖 Needless to say, we had to add water to UNTHICKEN the chili. The taste was good enough, as you can’t ruin anything by adding too much tomato paste (uh…tomatoes).

    How was that for DESCRIPTION? Humph! If I was a writer like you, do you think I would get “in trouble” for writing too much description ALL OF THE TIME?

    Well done again, on writing such an interesting blog. And, reading your blogs gives me a window into imagining how you’d conduct a class on writing. So impressed!

    Love, M

    On Sun, Mar 10, 2019 at 4:49 PM Words like trees wrote:

    > Jimmy Kindree posted: ” A few years ago I found myself in a one-day > writing workshop, examining all fiction in terms of three elements: > character, conflict, and description. The idea that every sentence we write > is primarily serving one of these functions is perhaps reductive, ” >

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

Create your website at WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: