Description – Part I: Friend or Frenemy?

page from British History book - British Library Creative CommonsDescription can be your best friend. Equally, it can be like that frenemy who talks about you behind your back and steals your boyfriend.

I’ve been on both ends of this particular lesson. As a Master’s student in Creative Writing one of my teachers went so far as to indicate that I “overdid” description in my work. I often tried to cram too much in. And I was, of course, in love with words: I was a poet turned to prose.

Years later, when the shoe was on the other foot and I was teaching Creative Writing workshops, I found that description was one of the hardest components to tackle – not because it’s subjective, but because it’s actually a really complex subject.

Simply put, here’s why: description can be part of a writer’s style, as much a part of it as how sentences are strung together. And how a writer strings together sentences determines how easily readers can navigate a fictional world. You can craft straightforward descriptions. Or, you can use description to evoke tone and style and even use it to develop character.

So first, you need to consider your motive in relation to your writing style: do I want my descriptions to make readers stop and stare at amazement? Or do I want the reader to be eased through the story rather than tied up in knots by description (which sometimes happens when you heap it on OR when you create metaphoric diamonds)?

On the surface, straightforward seems like the easiest form of description. You describe something – say, a cardboard box. But even within that description, how do you evoke a scene for a reader and make it live and breathe?

Any good instructor (or writing book) will tell you to consider the five senses: what does the box look like, feel like, smell like, taste like (yuck)? But then you run the risk of overdoing it: of heaping on impression after impression until it takes you ten pages just to describe a cardboard box and your reader has thrown their ereader against the wall in despair. (How many people do you know have gotten through an entire James Joyce novel?)

So how can you tackle these issues? Good description is a balancing act that asks you to carve out the most experiential path for the reader. Choose one or two sensory impressions to describe. Use novel words or ideas to describe your scene (I’ll get to metaphor later); think outside the box. Everyone will tell you not to use clichés but I’m not one of them: I’d simply say, if you’re going to resort to clichés, but very, very conscious of how you’re using them.

Consider this description of the ‘breakfast room’ from True Born:

I go back to bed and an hour later dress and slowly make my way to the small breakfast room. The walls are a pale colour our mother calls ecru, covered in old lithographic prints from OldenTimes. China hangs from the walls like decapitated heads. When we were younger Margot and I weren’t allowed in here for fear we’d bust it up.

Here I choose just one or two items to describe the room. I don’t need to describe each and every item here; instead, I can focus on one or two items that evoke a mood, a relationship, a character. The reader understands it’s the mother’s room, her colour stamped on the walls. The forbidden china of the room – decapitated heads – creates a new layer to the dystopian theme of the novella.

Another technique you could consider is action. Action can help you whittle down your description to one or two points that make the world come alive. Not to keep patting my own descriptions on the back, but here’s an example of this technique in the opening pages True Born:

The rain comes down in stripes as we’re bundled into our father’s shiny black Oldworld Mercedes and stall at the sooty iron gates surrounding our home. Two sentries ride shotgun on the electric gate. They hold machine guns with one hand    and an iron peg in the other as the gate slowly glides open. Fritz, the one with the steel-coloured flat top, is a merc, ex-army. He’s been with our father for two years now. Shane, the one with the Celtic knot work bulging over his biceps and the crazed glint in his eyes, had been with our father since we were girls. And one of a handful of people in the world Margot and I trust.

The descriptions here evoke the sensory world of the main character: how she views the world, the kinds of language she would use. It establishes relationships, character, and becomes not so much a description as a scene where you begin to know the world these characters live in.

But of course, this is just one small facet of writing good descriptions. More to come…

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