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A Question of Description

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Photo by Sophie Masson.

Description, writers are often told, holds up action in a novel. Modern readers have no patience with it. Limit it, we are advised. Pare it down. Or even dispense with it altogether.

I don’t agree. I think description is indispensable for a story, any story, to really feel alive. And not just ‘limited’ description either. We humans are sensual creatures and sensual images are what we need to evoke emotion and to plunge into fictional worlds as much as real ones. Settings, characters, action itself, in fact, all need description. Or the emotional power is lost. Story without description is zombified, numbing the reader. But it’s also true that story with too much description is suffocated. So description needs to be the right sort.

But what’s that? Sometimes, you’ll be advised to cut out adjectives, or adverbs—the poor old adverb often has a rough trot of it, in authorship how-to books. I think that’s another case of a poor reputation being unfairly tagged on a very useful part of language. Used judiciously—see the adverb working!–they can be excellent. As with any part of language, though, they need to be in the right proportion. For example, verbs, which are often hailed by minimalists as the best ‘descriptor’ can be misused too and in large numbers weigh down the text just as heavily as too many adjectives or adverbs.

The thing with description is, it’s got to be ‘alive’, if it’s going to capture the reader’s attention. And modern readers are every bit as keen on that as readers in the past. But they also mostly like to be put right into the thick of a story right from the beginning, rather than read a leisurely descriptive introduction which sets the scene. Though that’s not always a hard and fast rule(as you’ll see below), it is a common preference.

And so in view of that, it’s my advice that you don’t abandon description, but the main rule of thumb is to scatter it throughout, at the right moments, for maximum emotional and sensual effect. And to set every part of language to work: nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, simile, plays on words, onomatopoeia, and metaphor—and more! It’s very effective, as well as fun, to experiment with all these elements to create different feelings, and to focus on different things.

Here’s a few concrete examples of what I mean, from various books of mine:

Description of a setting, where I’ve mostly used verbs:

I love the freedom I have here, where you can run barefoot in long summer grass or whoop as you race a sleigh across snowy fields, or get ink on your fingers and your nose, and nobody cares. Nobody that is apart from my sisters.

Description of a character and an emotional atmosphere, which uses adjectives and adverbs:

This wasn’t the everyday Luz, lively, argumentative and sometimes annoying, but a big-eyed, alarmingly quiet and gentle version of her, and almost more than anything else his cousin’s transformation made Emilio realise how much his whole world had shifted.

Another description of a character, using carefully chosen adjectives to build a simile:

With his cold beady eyes and his spindly legs in their dusty black trousers, he reminds me of a bedraggled elderly crow.

This very immediate snapshot scene especially uses nouns and adjectives to create a sensual picture:

Just as it had looked, it tasted wonderful: caviar on croutons, lobster in tarragon cream, fresh young steamed asparagus with a lemony sauce, tiny pheasant pies, some anchovy eclairs and a preserved artichoke salad which tasted of the sun. It was the kind of thing I could only dream of, normally, and I did not bolt my food but took time to savour each mouthful, each separate taste and texture and smell, rolling them on my palate, my tongue, in seventh tastebud heaven.

And finally, just to show you that you can break that ‘rule’ about no description right at the start: We’d been travelling for hours. The rain that had dogged us since Euroa had eased and was now a mere soft drizzle that was hardly perceptible in the dense forest we were now going through. Mrs Gill was asleep, along with her three small children (thanks be to God). Miss Davies was reading a novel. The taciturn old man opposite me who’d avoided giving his name had his eyes closed, but only, you felt, so he didn’t have to look at anyone. Papa was writing up his usual notes on our travels—a heroic undertaking, in our present cramped and uncomfortable circumstances—and as to me, well, I was just sitting there, thinking. Not about anything important—or anything that might have served as premonition—or anything uncanny at all. No, I was just thinking drowsily about how odd it was that April was in autumn here instead of spring, when all at once the coach gave a jolt—greater than any of the others we’d had to endure on this atrocious road—and stopped dead.

That one was the very first paragraph of a very successful novel of mine which young modern readers—supposedly the most impatient of readers!–apparently had no trouble with at all. What I did with this scene was to combine that ninenteeth-century feel of ‘setting the scene’ (the book is set in the mid 19th century)with the modern notion of ‘cutting to the chase’–taking you right into the thick of the action—in this case, an ambush on the road. It worked really well, because the reader is then feeling both the uncomfortable, stupefying nature of long-distance travel, and the abrupt change which is just about to plunge our hero and his fellow travellers into a very different world. You also get clues about the characters and setting: such as April is autumn rather than spring, so clearly it’s set we are in the southern hemisphere—but the narrator is also clearly from the northern hemisphere, judging from his comment. There’s a lot packed into a one short scene—and it could not have been achieved without description.

So don’t be afraid of description. Experiment with it, play with it, and value it as an absolutely essential part of the writer’s craft.

About Sophie Masson [2]

Sophie Masson [3] has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors [4].