The Devil in the Details — Descriptions

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.  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.  When I was thirteen, my grandmother taught me how to make a pie crust.  Everything was fairly basic and straightforward, if tricky, until there came the moment to finish the pie.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  You don’t describe what your viewpoint character wouldn’t know or wouldn’t notice.  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.  The city girl would see a tree with pale purple flowers.  The herbalist would see a jacaranda.  If chased by a werewolf, neither of them would note anything beyond it being a tree they might hide behind.  At least until they start interacting with it.

With descriptions, there are a few other good guidelines.  One is to try to use all five senses in every description.  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.  Words that evoke these senses help them to imagine any given scene.

Beyond that, what is not shown is inferred by what is shown.  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.  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 if 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.  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.  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.

8 Responses to “The Devil in the Details — Descriptions”

  1. Jane Roseon 27 Jan 2007 at 6:48 am

    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

    It is? I read that description and immediately imagined a luxurious bedroom with scented smoke curling out of a fireplace. Not a pipe or a drug in sight. I obviously don’t have the connections you do in my mind, as the fact that this was an opium den never even flickered in my mind.
    Not that this negates what you are saying in any way. I just felt compelled to point out that your obvious image wasn’t obvious for me at all.

  2. Gyp Orienson 27 Jan 2007 at 10:10 am

    I agree with Jane; I had the same sort of mental image of a nice, oriental bedroom. Then again, I haven’t exactly had much experience with opium dens, either in real life or in literature.

    But I agree with you, too, on the main point of this blog. I’m often torn between describing scenes in full or really only focusing on one aspect of them at a time. I used to stop in the middle of writing, think to myself, “I really haven’t described much recently,” and then start describing away at the scene. The result was, to say the least, clunky and narrative-breaking. But when I started imagining the scene fully but only writing about the details that jumped out at me, or describing the bare bones that someone would need to fill in the rest, my descriptions started sounding more natural and it was easier to picture the scene in subsequent readings because I didn’t have as many details to keep track of, but I still had enough. I guess what I’m saying is that the less I concentrated on how I was describing things, or how much I was describing things and just described them, the better I got at it.

    I do practice all the time, though. When I’m bored (such as when I’m on a bus or a train with no book, or walking somewhere) I often try to describe my surroundings in my head, focusing on all the senses and all the minute details I can pick up. Does anyone else do this?

  3. LauraJMixonon 27 Jan 2007 at 10:17 am

    Good post, Kevin — though I didn’t know, either, that it was an opium den, till you told me. But a description exists in context with dialog and other cues that would quickly tell the reader it was an opium den.

  4. Sherwood Smithon 27 Jan 2007 at 1:37 pm

    Like the others, I thought of something else–no idea, really, what an opium den would look like. I depicted a Victorian bedroom.

    Also, a child of the area probably would know ‘jacaranda’–I remember I was six or seven when I asked what the purple trees were on my grandmother’s street and I adored the word jacaranda. We talked about them at school when they bloomed, and the blossoms blew over the blacktop from the street behind the school during the hot winds.

    This is all not to argue with your main point, which is excellent, just that one has to be careful one’s details do not mislead, or that one does not assume knowledge in the reader that isn’t there.

  5. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 27 Jan 2007 at 5:38 pm

    Agreed, Sherwood. Something I should have added with the “negative space” sort of description is that the reader will often fill in the details with something more interesting than what the author was trying to intimate, but so long as the two are not contradictory, it still works.

    I should have said that I was trying to intimate a high class opium den, with pretentions to being a nice Chinese-accented Victorian bedroom, but Laura is especially right in that the characters and dialogue would inform the scene. That set might work as the personal bedroom of a high class madam, though someone seeing the bed might guess that she has an opium habit or that the bed had previously belonged to a client who was one.

    Of course part of this springs from me being a bit of a furniture buff and thinking that opium beds are really cool.

    With the jacaranda, also agreed. Someone not knowing the names of the trees intimates either that one or the other is not local or that the viewpoint character is particularly oblivious and has simply never paid attention to such things.

    Of course, it’s also completely possible for an inquisitive child to grow up oblivious because the adults don’t know anything either. My street growing up was planted up and down the block with carob trees, but hell if we knew what they were as kids. We called them “stink pod trees” and threw them around like boomerangs. It wasn’t until ten years ago that I saw them for sale at an herbalist at ridiculous prices that I realized what in the hell they were.

  6. Marie Brennanon 29 Jan 2007 at 6:12 pm

    With descriptions, there are a few other good guidelines. One is to try to use all five senses in every description.

    I would disagree with this. Not only does it potentially break the pov point you made just before — not every character is going to pay attention to smells, or sounds, or whatever — but if an author adhered to this too enthusiastically, the descriptions would start to feel like checklists. (“Okay, now I need the character to lick something . . . .”) I support using all five senses in general — touch and smell in particular are frequently overlooked, except for stereotypical uses — but not in every description.

    It could be a useful exercise, though, to broaden one’s descriptive capabilities.

  7. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 29 Jan 2007 at 8:43 pm

    Any rule can lead to bad prose if an author follows the exact letter of the rule rather than the spirit, but I should probably clarify: When I say “description,” I mean “description on the page as a whole,” not the description of a single item in some sub-portion of a sentence.

    Besides which, following the character trait rule, if you completely avoid the kinesthetic, for example, readers may assume that “Look but don’t touch” is part of your character’s internal programming.

    Taste is about the hardest sense to incorporate, but you don’t need to have your characters run around licking everything in sight, especially since gustatory and olfactory are linked. Something as simple as “the air hung thick with greasy smoke” will serve for sight, taste, scent and even touch, since that’s the sort of thing that stings the eyes and even collects on the palate.

  8. Constance Ashon 30 Jan 2007 at 12:55 pm

    Well, I do know what both look like, at least contemporary versions of opium dens. You will not ever ever ever find a silk hanging in a crack shack. You might though, in a rich kid’s bedroom, who is throwing a crack party ….

    As far as which senses you use for description, or whatever else: you use them as you need them, the way the pov uses them.

    For instance, what senses do you use while cooking? All of them (unless you are blind, or you are hearing impaired, or you have a cold that impairs your taste of taste AND smell — but you must touch in order to cook — but if you don’t that is a telling detail by lack, because it must be some robotized, digitized, microwave form of cooking (which I will never believe is cooking, but nevermind). But one will be mostly dominant at particular parts of the process.

    I use the sense of hearing to considerable extent while cooking. Hearing what was cooking on with the steaming vegetables, the rice steamer, boiling water, etc., enables to gauge time, the point of that process, while I am away from the stove and doing something else. I’m not using any other sense.

    When I can smell the aroma of a baked potato, I know the process of baking it has reached the point where the potato will be fully baked in about another 10 minutes. I am only using my sense of smell then. To be sure the potato has baked all the way through, I put on my oven mitt and squeeze it gently. By the sense of touch I can tell if it is finished baking. I am only using my sense of touch then. If it is baked, I take it out of the oven. At no time has my sense of vision been in play.

    This is allows me to do something else while making dinner. Which usually means watching dvds — watching tv! because no matter how much experience I have, it is impossible for me to write and successfully cook simultaneously. The food is always ruined because I am always missing the signals, which are again, almost all about time. Cooking is so much about time …

    Love, C.

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