The suggestions and guidelines contained in this book are not designed to alter your natural writing style. Description comes in many forms. The oft-maligned minimalists—many of them brilliant chroniclers of modern life—use spare, economical prose that, paradoxically, opens up a story. A few well-placed details (a half-smoked cigarette, a broken heel, a muddy sunset) can express the essence of a character or place. Other writers are more flamboyant, even rambunctious, with their descriptions: syntactical pyrotechnics spark from every page. Each of these extremes brings its own brand of delight to both writer and reader.
In A Soldier of the Great War, novelist Mark Helprin tells an epic tale of war in which descriptions of thunderstorms and moonrises take up pages at a time. Women's faces, the war's grisly battles, ice-laden cliffs, fields, houses, paintings—all are rendered in close, precise, lyrical detail time and again, to the consternation of some readers and the delight of others. Why this much detail? Why not simply tell the story? Because, as the happy reader gradually discovers, A Soldier of the Great War is not a tale about war but a tale about beauty. The protagonist is a professor of aesthetics and war veteran at the end of his life, and the story's lyrical descriptions are true to his view of the world. Beauty, we discover, is an affliction, a refuge, an absolute truth. In the final scene, the old soldier/professor watches a flock of swallows being taken down by a hunter. No matter how many are felled, more rise up, banking and fluttering in an exquisite sky. Just as the novel's protagonist has fallen and risen time and again, unable not to hope, the swallows keep rising because they know how to do nothing else. It is a memorable scene, a harrowing view of beauty, a metaphor for the novel itself:
Alessandro turned again to the swallows. Though the sun backlighted them into hallucinatory streaks of silver, he neglected to shield his eyes, and he watched them fill the sky. As the hunter approached the base of the cloud, he made no effort to go quietly or to conceal himself.
Alessandro followed the paths of single swallows in steep arcs rocketing upward or in descent. How quick they were to turn when turning was in order, or to roll and dart through groups of birds fired at them, as if from a cannon, in an exploding star. This they did of their own volition, and they did it again and again.
For Alessandro they were the unification of risk and hope. It is hard to track them in violent winds high in the blue where they seem to disappear into the color itself, but as long as they take their great chances in the air, as long as they swoop in flights that bring them close to death, you cannot tell if, having risen, they will plummet, or, having plummeted, they will rise.
A story like this demands the lyricism with which Helprin infuses it; a stingier description would neither tell the same tale nor reveal the same character.
At the other end of the continuum are the short stories of Raymond Carver. His prose is quiet, stark, and studded with small, exquisitely chosen details—a descriptive style that matches his somber stories about the terror and pathos of ordinary lives. In "Nobody Said Anything," the narrator—whose irritable, exhausted parents are on the brink of splitting up—observes his mother leaving for work in her white blouse and black skirt:
. . . Sometimes she called it her outfit, sometimes her uniform. For as long as I could remember, it was always hanging in the closet or hanging on the clothesline or getting washed out by hand at night or being ironed in the kitchen.
Not an adjective in the whole passage, and yet Carver paints an accurate, vibrant picture of the boy's mother, informing the readers about how the boy views her and what their life together is like.
In the novels of Anne Tyler you will find a descriptive style that falls somewhere between these two extremes. Tyler's characters are unusual, often eccentric, and yet utterly real. She makes them real through description that is, like all good description, accurate and relevant. In an early scene from The Accidental Tourist, Macon is observing Muriel, "hoping for flaws." The word "hoping" is key here, for Macon does not want to fall for Muriel, or anyone. He does find flaws, described this way:
... a long, narrow nose, and sallow skin, and two freckled knobs of collarbone that promised an unluxurious body.
Macon's view of Muriel's nose and skin might lead readers to believe he is not attracted to her, but the "freckled knobs of collarbone" give him away, a detail that shows Muriel to be both vulnerable and endearing. This is an accurate portrayal of Muriel—she is indeed a bony woman—but also a relevant one, for Macon is exactly the person who could take a meticulous physical inventory of someone and not realize what he is really seeing.
Whether you fall on the baroque or puritan end of the description continuum or somewhere in between, remember that description is not a separate technique that decorates a story; it is a variety of techniques that combine to make a story. After the joyful rush of the first draft, these decisions must be consciously reviewed. Are my details accurate? Did I use the right point of view? Did I use too much narrative and not enough scene? Is my dialogue realistic? Does the flashback create a full enough portrait of the character's childhood? Is my style too ornate for this simple setting? Is the pace too slow or too fast? Are my metaphors overdone? All these questions go straight to the heart of description.
As you read through this book you will be reminded again and again that good description does not flow naturally from the pen. All writers, no matter how experienced, must consciously and purposefully attend to the techniques that make up description. In the following chapters I will explain these techniques—for example, the telling detail, dialogue, point of view, scene, narrative, and flashback—and offer you different ways to use them. By studying these techniques and applying them to your own work, you will come to understand how critical these techniques are for creating rich mental images, for turning a story from an account of something to a description of something. As every writer knows, writing can be by turns thrilling and delightful, discouraging and cheerless. What better antidote for those occasions of discouragement than the discovery of brand-new fiction-writing tools!
Details, at least the kind that make fiction live, can be as small as a well-placed adjective and as large as a central metaphor. Beginning students often scratch their heads when told their stories lack detail. Didn't they point out that the heroine possessed an "interesting personality"? Isn't that a detail? Well, yes and no. It's a detail, but not a useful one. A "calamitous personality," maybe; the "personality of a bee trapped in a mason jar"—now we're talking detail. A detail is a word or phrase or image that helps the readers "see." Don't tell your readers that Judy "looked sad," tell us about the shape of her mouth or the lifeless slats of her hair. Avoid details that call to mind anybody and use the ones that call to mind somebody.