Updated: 4 hours ago
Countless books, articles, and Internet sites advise how to use description in fiction. Their typical advice is,
Make use of the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste.
Make use of metaphors and similes.
Use vivid descriptions.
Show. Don’t tell.
Such counsel strikes me as too overarching, like telling a pilot not to crash the plane. I believe that vivid and succulent description lives more at eye level. When I babysit toddlers, I get on the floor with them and see the world as they do.
I believe that description should be as intimate as possible, as if author and reader are experiencing the scene at the same time. Ideally, the author and reader are the same person, sensing and worrying as one.
In your life, isn't it true that close communication and increased emotional intimacy go hand-in-hand? Don't best friends share their deepest thoughts and feelings?
Here are two perfectly good sentences:
The mouse squeaked as he rubbed his nose.
He had landed right in front of Abbot Mortimer.
What was in the author’s mind? What was the author visualizing when he wrote those words? Here's the real passage from the novel Redwall, by Brian Jacques:
The mouse squeaked in dismay. He rubbed tenderly at his damp snub nose while slowly taking stock of where he had landed: directly at the foot of Abbot Mortimer!
-- Redwall, Brian Jacques
What a difference! Now the thoughts of the author and reader are closer together.
What if I told you that effective description is very much like emotional intimacy? Think about the following definition:
Verbal and non-verbal communication promoting a degree of
mutual experience of closeness.
That sounds much like description to me!
Read the beginning of J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Hobbit:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats - the hobbit was fond of visitors.
-- The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
Does it almost feel like the author is escorting you through the hobbit hole as he’s describing it?
How about standing in the middle of Aunt Polly’s living room as she’s looking for her nephew Tom Sawyer, in Mark Twain’s novel, Tom Sawyer? It’s as if we are with Mark Twain as the two of us make judgments about Aunt Polly:
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked THROUGH them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for "style," not service -- she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:
"Well, I lay if I get hold of you I'll --"
-- Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
Up-close vs. distant point of view
In addition to first-, second-, or third-person POV, there is also Up-close vs. Distant voice. Up-close voice feels like you’re in the mind of the character, or at least right next to him or her.
Not all description, narration, or voice should be Up-close or Distant. Readers want variety. Thus, it’s helpful to know the difference between the two. Neither is wrong, but if all the writing is Distant, then the reader will feel less emotionally drawn into the story.
There are lists for how to write Up-close description, narration, and voice, too.
Intense physiological reaction
Precise details noticed by the character
Short sentences; even sentence fragments
Words and phrases typical of the POV character
Actions dominated by the emotions of the moment
Repetition of word or phrase (for emotional emphasis)
Rather than attempting to follow such suggestions, get yourself to start crying and then write your story as if you’re telling it to your best friend because no one else understands you.
Examples of “Up-close” voice
Here are just a few examples of Up-close voice. I hope you’ll get the idea.
Distant: She cursed.
Close: A shout welled within her, and she groaned, trying to hold it back.
Distant: She closed her eyes and imagined that Patch, her lost dog, had returned.
Close: Her eyes closed on their own and her hand caressed the chair’s soft armrest as if it were Patch’s soft coat.
“It is impossible to say how the idea first entered my head. There was no reason for what I did. I did not hate the old man; I even loved him. He had never hurt me. I did not want his money. I think it was his eye. His eye was like the eye of a vulture, the eye of one of those terrible birds that watch and wait while an animal dies, and then fall upon the dead body and pull it to pieces to eat it.
-- The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allen Poe
“Up-close” description, narration, or voice made simple
At the risk of being simplistic, I believe only two steps are required to write vibrant, living description, narration, and voice:
Write as if you’re standing with the characters as you view the scene and experience what is happening. Don’t leave any detail out. Pour out your soul regardless of what is important. Don’t think.
After you have finished writing your tale, go back and delete from your outpourings what isn’t used later in the story.
To demonstrate the two steps for Up-close description, narration, or voice, I provide the following examples.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
-- The Old Man and the Sea, Earnest Hemingway
This is the first sentence in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. In Hemingway’s mind, the old man 1) fished from a skiff, 2) in the Gulf Stream and, 3) hadn’t caught a fish in precisely eighty-four days. But if Hemingway hadn’t shared this information at the beginning of the story, there would have been a misunderstanding between author and reader right from the start.
Notice the second paragraph of Hemingway’s story. I’ve bolded phrases I would expect a beginning writer might leave out:
The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.
-- The Old Man and the Sea, Earnest Hemingway
Why didn’t Hemingway describe anything about the craft other than it was a skiff? Why didn’t Hemingway mention the man’s height or weight or even his name? It was because none of that information is used in the story.
Read the first four paragraphs of Michael Crichton’s, Andromeda Strain:
A man with binoculars. That is how it began: with a man standing by the side of the road, on a crest overlooking a small Arizona town, on a winter night.
Lieutenant Roger Shawn must have found the binoculars difficult. The metal would be cold, and he would be clumsy in his fir parka and heavy gloves. His breath, hissing out into the moonlit air, would have fogged the lenses. He would be forced to pause to wipe them frequently, using a stubby gloved finger.
He could not have known the futility of this action. Binoculars were worthless to see into that town and uncover its secrets. He would have been astonished to learn that the men who finally succeeded used instruments a million times more powerful than binoculars.
There is something sad, foolish, and human in the image of Shawn leaning against a boulder, propping his arms on it, and holding the binoculars to his eyes. Though cumbersome, the binoculars would at least feel comfortable and familiar in his hands. It would be one of the last familiar sensations before his death.
-- Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton
Given that Lieutenant Roger Shawn is about to die, no description is given of him except for his name. There’s some information about “his breath, hissing” and about his clothing, but that seems to be more of a reflection of the town’s weather rather than about Lieutenant Shawn.
Standing right there
In the above cases, does it feel like you were standing close to the characters with the author’s arm around you while he explained the scene? What did these authors do to create such magic?
The answer is,
The author writes down everything about the scene.
The author later deletes from the scene anything that isn’t used in the story.
Even Earnest Hemingway agrees with me!
Examples from my own writing
Here are two examples to demonstrate these two principles.
My precious Lily married me only after I promised to take her to Tanneuni on our honeymoon. Returning to that island north of Fiji had been her dream ever since her father had taken her there when she was twelve years old. How she could have been so enthusiastic about people and life for as long as I’d known her and yet think only of that island, I never understood until the day we arrived on Tanneuni.
-- Inhale, J.J. Richardson
What do we learn from this first paragraph:
Lily is precious to the narrator.
The couple is on their honeymoon on an island called Tanneuni, which is north of Fiji.
Lily married him only after he promised to take her to the island. This puts the quality of Lily’s character into question. This also shows that the narrator is complicit with Lily’s demands.
Returning to the island has been Lily’s dream for a very long time.
Lily is an enthusiastic person.
Lily has been “thinking only of that island” for many years, suggesting she harbors long-term obsessive thoughts.
The narrator didn’t understand the magnitude of her feelings on the matter until the day they arrived on the island.
What we don't yet know from the first paragraph:
What do Lily and the narrator look like?
What their ages are.
What their lives were like before arriving on the island.
How much does the trip cost?
Either such lack of information is a mistake on the author’s part, or none of that information has anything to do with the story. Readers are allowed to imagine anything they want about the characters that isn't stated in the story. Stephen King wrote,
"Description begins with the writer's imagination,
but should finish with the reader's."
-- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King
Here's another example:
They awoke me, claps like distant thunder from beyond the hills south of Kernhearth. I lay remembering oft-spoken tales of loss and suffering from crushed rebellions. When will we be attacked, and who shall tell our story?
My sleep deserted me as men’s voices and the clamor of horses, metal, and leather carried through the open window of Grandfather’s cottage.
Mother came in from her room and sat beside my sister and me on our bed. She caressed my hair and cheeks as if I were to be married in the morning. I might have been by then if Ranulf had not died from the fever.
-- The Loud Lights, J.J. Richardson
So far in the story, we don’t know when, where, or who these people are. We don’t know anything about the main character, including if it’s a he or she. Adept readers could look up the name Ranulf and learn that it’s an old-English boy’s name. This suggests the main character is a girl of marriageable age, and that just maybe the story takes place in the past.
The secret to having friends
I’ve never figured out how to have many friends. They’re few and extremely valuable to me. Perhaps I’m not sufficiently emotionally intimate with people. Or I’m so above everyone that I scare people away.
While these are not hideous traits for a person, they’re catastrophically terrible traits for an author.
Get down on the floor with your readers. Feel the linoleum with your palms as your cry together.
Your heart doesn’t need checklists. Neither do your readers.