And now a few thoughts about a subject near and dear to every writer’s heart: description. After all, much of the reason behind our interest in writing and developing our writing skills is our love of word play and how a memorable combination of words can move us. So we try and use our descriptive and poetic skills as much and often as possible.
It’s a mistake young and beginning writers (myself included) often make.
For instance: the writer creates a beautiful and eloquent description of the architectural wonders of the Acme Company’s headquarters building. It is truly a magnificent passage. Unfortunately, the scene that follows is of a junior accountant in his cubicle having an argument with his wife over the phone. The description of the headquarters building has no bearing whatsoever on the scene. He’s in a cubicle; it could be any office building. The description does not advance the action. It does not add anything to the characterization. It serves no purpose in the story. Despite its beauty, the description should be cut from the scene.
Everything in a work of fiction, including descriptive passages, needs to be there because it serves a specific purpose in advancing the story. There is no room for fluff of any kind.
Description, in particular, serves three fictional purposes:
1. To help the reader visualize the physical location where the action occurs.
2. To help the reader visualize the characters and their actions.
3. To help create and/or reflect the emotional state of the characters.
It is the third purpose I’m most interested in here.
Unless you’re writing from the omniscient viewpoint (the all-seeing godlike narrator), everything you write in any particular scene is filtered through the consciousness of a character. This includes description. And since we are all emotional creatures and so are our characters, their emotional state will influence how they experience the world around them.
For example, a man goes to a city park on a warm Saturday afternoon for a picnic with his new girlfriend. What does he see? Big leafy shade trees? Expanses of manicured lawn? Families scattered around spread blankets. College kids playing Frisbee? Girls in swimsuits laying in the sun?
Now, have the same man go to the same park on the same Saturday afternoon. But this time he’s not there for a picnic. Now he’s there to deliver a ransom to the men who kidnapped his wife. Now what does he see? Certainly not the same thing as the first man. He probably sees the deep shadows under the trees. The massive trunks that could hide a man. The man over on the bench, who doesn’t seem to be doing anything. He would be alert, on edge, and suspicious of everything. That emotional state has to inform the descriptions.
Our job as writers is to carefully choose the descriptions that will not only advance the story and inform our characterizations, but also to help create the overall mood of our work. Since we are concentrating on suspense here, how do we do that? By carefully charging our descriptions with words that connote a sense of danger, menace, or disquiet.
Consider this description of a laundromat in Ramsey Campbell’s horror novel The Doll Who Ate His Mother:
“The launderette felt overcast; the heat was heavy with the smells of soap and hot cloth. A shirt reared up almost shapelessly at a porthole, flapping empty arms; vortices of clothes pressed against glass. A young man filled his plastic sack from a dryer, feeling a girl’s underwear furtively for damp, like a fetishist hastily fingering the contents of a chest of drawers. A child went out dragging a sack, an early Christmas gnome.”
By carefully choosing which details to use and the creative use of simile and metaphor, Mr. Campbell manages to make a description of something as mundane as a laundromat feel spooky as hell. He does this throughout the novel, taking mundane scenes and infusing them with disconcerting imagery. It is very effective.
Creating such powerful, hard-working images isn’t easy. In fact, it is very hard. It requires many long hours wracking our brains for similes and countless revisions. But, if it were easy, everyone would be producing award-winning fiction (how’s that for an oxymoron?). If, however, we are willing to go through the agony and hard work, we too can produce very good fiction.