A common complaint about novels is “too many descriptions.” As a reader I have made the same complaint in cases where I was eager to see what happened next in a story, only to end up entangled in a painfully detailed description of some bucolic farm setting.
Question: Please, tell me, does the baby whose stroller is teetering on the edge of a three mile high precipice live?
Answer: Shh, not now. Here. Look at this grassy field. It has a cow. And grass. Did I mention the grass was green? Emerald green!
Of course, writing has no rules about how many descriptions to include or not include; besides, some writers are so gifted at descriptions, it is hard to complain about them. Describing is also a major way to communicate the setting to readers and give them the feeling that they are actually there.
However, copious descriptions – especially static ones – can present an enormous challenge to readability. As a writer, I have to ask myself if including long passages of static descriptions is worth the burden it puts on the pacing.
By static, I mean descriptions that my character is not actively engaged with, except maybe as an observer. For example, “The mountain was covered in red and white wildflowers.” If the character is running through the wildflowers or picking them, the description becomes part of the story action so I would not consider it static.
There is nothing wrong with simply saying that the mountain was covered in wildflowers, but when you have a lot of that type of description, the story can slow to a crawl.
Sometimes I find myself wanting to write “pretty pictures” without regard to whether they do anything for the story as a whole. “See? Look at my pretty sunset. I made it out of words!” There is nothing wrong with describing a sunset per se, but when I do, the story essentially stops (unless the sun is a major character). Even if my sunset description is beautifully written, it will burden my story if it lacks a dramatic purpose or goes on for a long time.
While descriptions are an important story-telling device, I want to be thoughtful about them. To do that I have to be aware of my story on two different levels. I need to know what is going on structurally with my novel as a whole, as well as paying attention to the finer sentence-level details.
Due to structural considerations, I often end up jettisoning many of my favorite scenic “word paintings” if they hog the spotlight and inhibit the story action.
Fortunately there are ways to evoke vivid sensory details without stalling the story. One way is to make the descriptions active or interactive. John Knowles, author of the classic novel A Separate Peace, does this well. The following is a sentence from the novel:
We had dinner at a hotdog stand, with our backs to the ocean and its now cooler wind, our faces toward the heat of the cooking range.
John Knowles could have written a static description, something like, “There was a hotdog stand nearby. The cool wind from the ocean was blowing as heat flowed from the cooking range.”
Instead, he turns the description into an interactive experience; here, you are barely aware he is describing anything. The descriptive details are so seamlessly woven into the story action that the narrative never seems to stop.
Here is the rest of the paragraph:
Then we walked toward the center of the beach, where there was a subdued New England strip of honky-tonks. The Boardwalk lights against a deepening blue sky gained an ideal starry beauty and the lights from the belt of honky-tonks and shooting galleries and beer gardens gleamed with a quiet purity in the clear twilight.
Even in the last sentence where the description does become static, there is a sense of unfolding awareness as the character strolls along the boardwalk; thus, his observations are part of the narrative, a fleeting impression, something being experienced in real time. The story never really stops.
When John Knowles describes an object, he also often uses strong action verbs to emphasize its motion (if it has motion).
The wave hesitated, balanced there, and then hissed back toward the deep water, its tentacles not quite interested enough in me to drag me with it.
This passage is a great example of how a writer can use strong action verbs, “hesitated, balanced, hissed,” rather than adjectives, to describe inanimate objects in the natural world. In doing so, John Knowles creates further interest by portraying the ocean as a living, tentacled creature.
Another way to make descriptions of settings “earn their keep” is by contrasting them to a major character. If a character is out of his element say, a college biology professor working at a fast food restaurant, or a wealthy heiress struggling to survive in a third world country, you automatically have an excellent setup for conflict and drama.
Try describing a place from the point of view of a character who is at odds with his environment. Have the college biology professor imagine all the toxic microorganisms as he regards a nasty sink full of cookware or dishes.
What about my heiress? Does she scoff the tattered homes of her impoverished “inferiors”? Or does she view the homes with pity or compassion? How does she handle the discomfort? Does she complain much? Or does she keep her discomforts to herself out of consideration for those around her? How she reacts to her unsuitable environment will define her.
In the same way, you can describe a setting that is in harmony with a character – so much so that it actually seems like an extension of who she is.
An excellent example is Anne of Green Gables, which is teeming with natural descriptions – the trees, the rivers, the flowers. I never minded them because the author paints so beautifully with words, but also because the descriptions have an important purpose: they illuminate who Anne is.
Anne is in love with where she lives, and the intoxicating scenery is filtered through her point of view. Looking through her eyes, I fall in love with the scenery along with her. Thus, the natural descriptions of the setting become a powerful extension of Anne and her personality; hence her title “Anne of Green Gables.”
You can also use scenic details to evoke emotion. Playing with point of view is one way to do that.
I like to filter scenic details through the emotional state of a character. A sad character is likely to notice different aspects of a scene than a happy character. For instance, an unhappy character observing a tree may notice dead bugs on its branches, the dull grey color of the bark, or the offensive graffiti someone etched into the wood.
The character who is in a good mood may see the same bark as having an opulent, silvery color. Instead of observing the dead bugs belly-up on a limb, he may notice the brightly colored birds or the vibrant autumn leaves. Viewing the same vibrant leaves, my depressed character may reflect on how the vibrant leaves are dead, just dead, dead the way everything is dead in the end.
Describing a scene through the emotional lens of a character piques interest and drives drama while anchoring the readers to the setting.
Description can also be useful for symbolism. Many people consider symbolism to be pretentious, the sacred property of the super-serious literary world which is policed by judgey university professors.
In reality, any child who has ever had a nightmare has a basis for understanding literary symbolism. A monster represents fear. I used to dream about becoming immobilized during dangerous situations. My paralysis symbolized the horror of being helpless. In fiction stories symbolism is no different. They are metaphors – concrete ways of representing emotion that go beyond the abstract naming of emotions such as love, rage, or fear. And like a bad dream, an entire setting can symbolize an emotional state.
In the new short story collection I am about to release, I included a story called “The Age of Erring” about a colony of super-evolved humans on another planet who value perfection above all else. This is a problem for my main character, a sixteen year old who cannot seem to stop making mistakes, while everyone around her seems to be free of them.
The setting encapsulates her discomfort. The planet is covered with trees made of glass beneath a crumbling moon that is “falling” toward the planet piece by piece. The symbol of glass trees beneath a falling moon represents the tension of erring in a society that fears mistakes more than anything.
Symbolism aside, there is nothing wrong with using descriptions just to anchor readers to the story setting and create an immersive experience.
However, I would prefer that my descriptions do more than that, so that the drama never stalls – at least not for very long. My favorite stories are a seamless blending of setting, character, situation, symbol, and theme, each part maintaining interest by itself, while at the same time serving the whole.
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