The world is not
a clever sequence of words
or transfixing series
It is not a poem
film, literature, or
sculpture made of bone
Then what is the world
Taste, sound, odors
That is not the world
those are perceptions of the world.
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 there—right 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 visual—but 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?