Uncategorized, world-building

Some Notes On the Art of Description

Primary Sources 

The world is not   

a clever sequence of words 

or transfixing series

of images. 

__________

It is not a poem  

or painting, 

music 

film, literature, or 

sculpture made of bone 

bronze, iron 

or clay. 

__________

Then what is the world  

I asked. 

__________

Taste, sound, odors  

sights, textures

she said.

__________

That is not the world 

I said 

those are perceptions of the world. 

__________

Exactly

she said.

__________

Ah! 

I have my poem. 

—Carl E. Reed

………………………………………………….

One of the most difficult skills to master in the craft of fiction writing is the manufacturing of presence: the ability of the writer to put their readers thereright there, in the middle of the action—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching—what the viewpoint character is experiencing. The evocation of sensory stimuli via text is one of the most effective, yet spooky tools (to use Norman Mailer’s term for this knock-on effect of vivid prose) that the fictioneer has in his or her bag of tricks. When done well, the reader is all but unaware that these sensory details are being fed to them in the course of the narrative’s unfolding. They enter fully into the fictional dream without being consciously aware that tiny black tick marks on a page are the software code stimulating the machinery of the brain into producing transfixing hypnagogic visions.  

Ah, but the writer must be consciously aware! He or she, in the role of spell-binding enchanter, selects and highlights the telling details that bring a story to life. And it is exactly here that many novice writers fail—with descriptions that are muddled, confusing or imprecise; primarily visual; or otherwise lacking in vividness and color. Art conceals art, and it is not until a writer deconstructs a particularly vivid or arresting passage in a favorite work of fiction that they begin to work out the mechanics of how the trick is done.  

Stephen King notes: “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” He advises that writers describe things “in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.” 

In On Writing, his primer of the craft, Mr. King further elaborates: “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 also a question of how much to . . . Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story. . . . ” 

Master prose stylist Vladimir Nabokov wonderingly reminds us:

“We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing . . . I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable.” (Pale Fire)


V. N. ends his short story The Fight this way: 

Or perhaps what matters is not the human pain or joy at all but, rather, the play of shadow and light on a live body, the harmony of trifles assembled on this particular day, at this particular moment, in a unique and inimitable way. 

True, the above example is all visualbut what a visual! A painterly evocation of the fall of light and shadow whilst the author dismisses transient human emotions as the raison d’être of meaning in favor of foregrounding the quotidian specificity of “a harmony of trifles” that sum to epiphany via the appreciation of beauty: that body; right here, right now.

Or this bit of exquisite, pitch-perfect verbiage (visuals + sound + metaphor) from Nabokov’s short story The Aurelian:

. . . out of the black generous night, a whitish moth had dashed in and, in an audible bob dance, was kissing its shadow all over the ceiling.

To draw upon my own writing for an illustrative sample of this technique (“Sure, sure hide behind Stephen King and Nabokov all day; let’s see some of your own stuff, bucko!” I can hear the critics snarling, knives a-sharpening) here is the opening scene in full of Samhain Eve: A Celtic Tale:

……………………………………………………………….

Owen Kerrigan awaited the return of a dead man. He stood outside his stone-slabbed hut, gazing across the meadow at the edge of the boggy woods, breath a chill mist in the air. A peaty tang carried to his nostrils, mixed with the fragrant wood smoke of the bon fires that had burned in the village since dawn. One hand shaded his eyes against the westering light.

Dusk of October 31st. Samhain Eve: the end the end of summer and the beginning of the new year. A time of bon fires and celebratory feasting, sacred observance and human sacrifice, daylight revels followed by night-haunted terrors and warding rituals. A portentous, carnivalesque, liminal time when the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead thinned to nothing. It was this latter fact that was the source of Owen Kerrigan’s growing unease, as he waited for the return of the young man he’d murdered three years ago in a raid on a rival clan.

 A wooden door creaked open behind him. Owen dropped his hand from his eyes and turned to behold the perspiring face of his wife.

“Come inside, Owen. Our meal grows cold.” Tara glanced down at the candlelit, hollowed-out turnips flanking the doorway, transformed by artful carving into monstrous faces: an ancient custom meant to ward off the haints, nightgaunts and other supernatural beasties that prowled about on New Year’s Eve. “The candles will burn most of the night; let the flame guardians greet our friend.” She stepped back and closed the door.

 Mayhap Tara was satisfied that the candlelit grotesqueries would prove sufficient barrier to ward off the things of the netherworld that came a-knockin’ after dark on October 31st, but Owen was not. After all, it’d never stopped him from returning before.

 Bran. The young man’s name was Bran. A fact he’d found out only later, after a delegation of tribal elders from his village met with the murdered victim’s family and his betrothed, Deirdre, to offer iron and gold and silver-tongued apologies to avert an all-out retaliatory war.

A faint tinkling of childish laughter sounded from a hut a stone’s throw away behind him, near the edge of a stand of alder and birch bordering the southern side of the village. This was followed by the yowl of a cat and the basso-profundo cursing of his neighbor Kendrick, a roar almost immediately counter-pointed by the scolding alto of his wife.

Owen smiled a small, sad smile. He and Tara had not, as yet, produced any children.

Glancing once more at the edge of the boggy wood to the west―the direction the dead man had approached in years past―Owen said, “Come then, Bran. Return to this world if you must. But Cernunnos hear me, there’s nothing more I can do for you; no way to undo what’s been done. If I could grant you life again . . .” He trailed off, fists balled at his sides. His mouth was dry; a bitter taste of bile on the tongue.

No answer from the mire. Tendrils of fog twined amongst an acidic fenestration of scraggly shrub, withered black spruce and waxy leatherleaf.

Owen unclenched his fists. The sting in his hands abated; blood rushed back into the crescent moons dug into the flesh of his palms. He turned and went inside.

……………………………………………………………….

In this opening scene all of our human senses are evoked: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.

Now look at your own writing. How many senses are evoked during the course of your narrative? I will state it bluntly and brace for blow-back: If all or most of your scenes contain only visual (or primarily visual) evocations, you are failing at the art of fiction. Your writing is sputtering along at 1/5th the power and intensity it could have. (Which is not to say that every scene must evoke all five senses; so regimented and crude an application of technique would be ham-fisted and ultimately self-defeating: the reader would tumble to what you are doing almost at once and grow annoyed.)

What is your approach to writing descriptive passages in your fiction? (Please cite some pertinent passages for example.) Are there writers you think handle descriptive passages particularly well? Particularly poorly? Would you care to cite some of those examples here? Is there anything else you’d like to say on the subject?  

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22 thoughts on “Some Notes On the Art of Description

  1. Excellent insights, Carl. Thank you!
    “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
    Exactly! That, I think, is the *fun* of writing: “…to cause your reader to prickle with recognition.”
    Hmm, never realized how much I could like Stephen King.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. There are many ways to evoke a scene. Here’s one of my own favorites.
    ~ from The Phoenix Diary

    He stepped away from the campfire into the darkness. Smoke followed him, mixing with the night smells of earth and pine. Behind, the fire sizzled and popped from moisture frozen in the wood and in front the creek gurgled where faster running water in the middle kept the surface clear of ice. Otero listened as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. Then he looked up. Stars flooded the space above him down to the horizons. He could feel the Earth turn in the company of those suns, each one like him, going somewhere.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Confession:  I am eye-oriented and do tend to describe sights rather than sounds or smells.  But I did try to get sight and smell to work together in the opening hook of the very short story I posted as *Pulling a Calf*:

    For late winter (also known as mud season), it was a nice day.  A few half-hearted snowflakes drifted down.  They vanished into the promise of spring wafting up from wet ground that had already thawed.  As I walked past a small farm about 2 miles from home, Everett called out: “Can U give me some help?”

    While *Pulling a Calf* is not fiction, a story is still a story.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. I remember the very strong emphasis on using all five senses when I studied under Tony Ardizzone in college. My approach to description tends to be overkill in beginning drafts, then revise, revise, revise to get just the right sensory details to make the scene come alive.

    Liked by 3 people

    • That makes sense, Liz: selective focus and judicious judgment as to what sensory stimuli to evoke, when. Otherwise–as I warned–this can become just another hack “paint-by-numbers” technique. (I’m very curious: Did Tony A. warn of any drawbacks/potential pitfalls in utilizing this method of fictioneering?)

      Liked by 4 people

  5. victoracquista says:

    Excellent post, Carl! A good reminder about the power of sensory description and drawing the reader into the story through the power of that description. Here’s a sample from a novel of my own:

    A small alcove led to the chamber of awakening, a rock-hewn vestibule completely enclosed and lit by oil lamps and a single brazier giving a
    soft orange glow. Serena sensed a strong sulfuric scent, not unpleasant and somewhat subtler than where Melantha sat, but still acrid. Her eyes teared. A
    rock basin with water stood in the center; bubbles continuously erupted from below and burst with vaporous gasps. Earth, air, fire, water—the alchemical elements were all contained within the cauldron-vessel of the vestibule itself.

    Standing adjacent to the basin, Agape announced, “The perfume of Pythia”.

    The Priestess closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, swaying and murmuring to herself. “It is intoxicating!” For a moment she seemed to drift off then returned. “Here child, take the staff, place it in the orifice and grasp it firmly.”

    Agape handed Serena the golden Caduceus staff; the lower portion slid into a hidden opening within the center of the basin. As she did this, her kundalini energy roused powerfully in a sudden jolt. Her pelvis throbbed and tingled. The insertion of the rod into the rock orifice of the earth evoked a sexual union. As she breathed the sulfurous mists, she started feeling woozy, holding the staff to maintain her stance, entering some unreality.

    Liked by 3 people

    • victoracquista says:

      I have no idea why the formatting is all messed up in the first paragraph I posted. It should look like this:
      A small alcove led to the chamber of awakening, a rock hewn vestibule completely enclosed and lit by oil lamps and a single brazier giving a soft orange glow. Serena sensed a strong sulfuric scent, not unpleasant and somewhat more subtle than where Melantha sat, but still acrid. Her eyes teared. A rock basin with water stood in the center; bubbles continuously erupted from below and burst with vaporous gasps. Earth, air, fire, water—the alchemical elements were all contained within the cauldron-vessel of the vestibule itself.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I fixed the formatting as best I could. When you cut-&-paste text from another word doc into WordPress, you always have to edit that post to correct formatting errors. (Though there are still plenty of formatting errors I haven’t figured out how to correct!)

        Liked by 2 people

  6. An important topic, Carl, and one that got me thinking, ‘Yikes, perhaps I don’t describe enough!’ At some point it was a conscious decision not to write a paragraph that was purely descriptive, but to add little touches here and there to make sure the reader regularly gets a sense of physical detail. The longest I could find was this:
    Seen through the taxi window, Anjouan’s capital, Matsumudu, was as Charlotte had described: desultory and dispirited, as if all human endeavour had been sucked out of it. What was old was faded or falling apart, and what was new was unfinished. Every so often came the acrid smell of refuse smouldering in the streets. Children in rags played on the rusting hulks of boats rotting in the sea. The water lapped at a filthy shore even more neglected than Hounda’s.
    Where possible I try to adhere to the advice Liz provides above: ‘the descriptions have to provide insight into character and contribute to the forward momentum of the plot’. I think that’s why mine are fragmentary and brief, corresponding to what might strike a character at that particular moment.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Peter Thomson says:

    I try to keep my touches of sensory input light and the story moving: “The First Foremost took his time walking back to the house. There was the opportunity to savour the street life of the capital, to sample the food stalls, to listen to the preachers leaning out from their niches to urge the crowd below to better conduct and cast an eye over the bright produce on display in the markets. He went out of his way to stroll through the spice market, nostrils wide as he sampled the panorama of smells, then turned into the shaded alley where sacks of lentils, bright orange, deep yellow, black, dull green, lay open below strings of onion and garlic, red, purple and white. In the next aisle he bought a pastry stuffed with a savoury filling, nibbling the corners and guessing the contents by smell. Mashed yam, onions of course, black pepper, sea-spice, something green and sharp – cress?
    As he walked he reviewed this latest conversation. It was a small victory but it won time – in the First’s experience the most critical resource of all. He took a larger bite and turned into the wider passages of the cloth market. It was almost as colourful as the spice market if not nearly as fragrant. Paghin Paail was not Brahnker city, but it attracted a fair amount of outland custom. The First’s eye sorted by size, shape, costume, accent, gesture, complexion, habit of body, picking out Dravish, Haghakin, Merllan, Hada and others, some of the many peoples around the Green Sea, here to buy and sell. He shook his head. How many of these folk would be here if the Ultras had their way, and how then would the Faithful fare?”

    There are other ways to do it. I won’t quote, but in Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan every action is preceded by several paragraphs of exact description. We know the wallpaper, the furniture, the dresses, the smell of the candles, the undulations of the innumerable cats – and then some (often bizarre) action sets us off to another scene. It takes a while for the reader’s eye to adjust to the pace, but then the places become unforgettable and the actions savoured. Even in a fight he takes time to describe the sensations felt by a spider sitting on an eyeball.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks for contributing to the discussion, Peter!

      Re: “Even in a fight he takes time to describe the sensations felt by a spider sitting on an eyeball.” Ah, yes!

      My memory is hazy–cannot find the precise reference at this moment in the early am–but I well remember the improvement in precision, effect and poetic phraseology Ray Bradbury made to one particular sentence in one of his stories that first appeared in Dark Carnival, and then later in The October Country. The older version (Dark Carnival) read something like: “The spider tapped gently in her ear”. The revised version appearing in The October Country read, roughly paraphrased: “the whisper-soft tapping of gossamer-thin filament legs upon the tympanum”. Decades of writing practice had sharpened Bradbury’s powers of apt, poignant description to a preternatural degree of exquisite precision and startling evocativeness.

      Liked by 3 people

  8. Perry Palin says:

    Like some others here I prefer the description to be written into the story line. An excerpt from a coming of age short:

    When I was eleven and twelve I went alone to the woods. I found some relief, at least for a little while, from the politics of school and the ruins of a family. My older sister, whose life wasn‘t any better than mine but who had other plans for herself, asked, “Why do you go sleep in the woods like that? Are you crazy or something?”

    I didn‘t even have to think to give her my reply. “Maybe you’re the crazy. I never heard a tree or an animal tell a lie.”

    I ate two fried brook trout and an apple, and drank boiled coffee, then lay on the grass and watched the trout turn and drift over the golden gravel to catch their dinners. They were invisible until they moved, and then they were green and blue and red and black and cream and orange in patterns and in an order that no artist could imagine.

    I lay down on my bag in the gathering dusk and listened to barred owls calling across the forest. I could have joined in, and they would have answered me, but I fell asleep knowing I would wake up for the best show.

    Later, the moon was down. My fire had died. There was no wind, no sounds from the woods, and I had only the music of water and the scents of cool earth and balsams and the more delicate birch to tell me where I was. I lay on my back and looked up between the trees to the Milky Way, and watched a million stars turn overhead until the morning sky was gray and then pink, and all the wild birds sang in the trees.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. mimispeike says:

    I am not going to read this now. I only want to tell you why I have been absent this week.

    I am in a medical crisis. I have siactica, and a week ago it got much worse. My husband took me to the emergency room, where they did next to nothing for me, gave me prescriptions for weak pain killers, ibuprofen in better, and told me to see a spine specialist. We made an appt for Thursday and I had to cancel it. I could not make it up our five steps to the street. I have ben on my back on the couch for a week, unable to walk with agonizing pain. Today I fought my way over to my computer.

    We are trying to figure out how to get me to a doctor.

    Around Wednesday I actually thought I was getting better. Then in the middle of the night I tried to turn over – my rear is sore from lying on it – and I re-injured myself.

    Like

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