Kevin Andrew Murphy January 27th, 2007
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about descriptions — what works, what doesn’t, and what resonates down to a deeper level of truth.Â It’s an author’s job to notice things, and to use what they notice in service of their story, details as keys to unlock the reader’s imagination and memory and let them experience the world.
The smallest things are often the most important, touchstones to memory.Â When I was thirteen, my grandmother taught me how to make a pie crust.Â Everything was fairly basic and straightforward, if tricky, until there came the moment to finish the pie.Â My grandmother took a knife and drew three wavy lines down the crust, almost joining at the bottom, then used the knife to cut vents on each side of them, angled to make them look like three feathers or waving shafts of wheat.Â She explained that this was the pattern her mother had taught her, and her grandmother before, and all the ladies in the neighborhood had used this back in the day.Â It looked old and beautiful, something that wouldn’t look out of place in a pioneer woman’s hands, or a colonial kitchen, or an old Dutch master’s still life or even before.Â Cutting that pattern a couple days ago, I couldn’t help but remember my grandmother.
It’s the little details like that that make a description spring to life, evoking memories and associations or even just giving the reader the sense that Someone lives here.Â Without them, a world looks as boring and interchangeable as your average motel room.
This isn’t to say that every description needs to be lavish, just that it needs to evoke something, have a detail or two that sets it apart, personalizes it.Â This is especially true in the case of an omniscient narrator, since it helps you set your voice.
With limited omniscient, or even more directly with first person, description is an extension of character.Â You don’t describe what your viewpoint character wouldn’t know or wouldn’t notice.Â You do describe not only what they would know and would notice, but what it is they would be thinking about and noticing at that moment in the story.Â The city girl would see a tree with pale purple flowers.Â The herbalist would see a jacaranda.Â If chased by a werewolf, neither of them would note anything beyond it being a tree they might hide behind.Â At least until they start interacting with it.
With descriptions, there are a few other good guidelines.Â One is to try to use all five senses in every description.Â Some readers are more visual, some are more auditory, some are more kinesthetic, and a few rarer ones are keyed into the olfactory and gustatory.Â Words that evoke these senses help them to imagine any given scene.
Beyond that, what is not shown is inferred by what is shown.Â If you mention three items, and they’re the right items, you’ll form a portrait through negative space of the things you’ve not mentioned.Â For example, a room with red silk hangings, an elaborately carved lacquerwood bed, and curling smoke in the air is fairly obviously an opium den, even ifÂ you haven’t described the addicts, the candles or the tell-tale pipes, or for that matter come out and called it an opium den.
Alternately, you can tell, but in such a way that you let the reader imagine it more fully.Â It was a crack shack with pretentions to being an opium den is more evocative than It was a crack shack with red silk wall hangings.Â Similes, metaphors and analogies can sum up a very large description in a very small space, and beyond that have the added bonus of being a further illumination of your viewpoint character.