Wednesday, March 17, 2010


©Leslie H. Edgerton

As writers, let’s take a look at Detail and Description, kind of the glue that holds stories together and has a lot to do with making it come alive for the reader. These are a couple of the elements in which we can really get creative, and for me, is one of the fun parts of writing.

Detail and description are many times not taught in classes as a separate subject, other than the teacher comments on “good” description and detail when she sees it. This, I think, is an oversight. Improper use of these elements can make an otherwise good story come across as boring, the worst sin a writer can make. Above all else, a story should be entertaining. Otherwise, why read it? Unless the reader’s goal is instruction and for that we can always turn to nonfiction.

The first rule in creating word pictures that come alive for the reader is to avoid clichés and hackneyed phrases. These are the STD’s of creative writing and will lead to a bad end (dull story). Such (non)descriptive phrases like “black as the night”, “Pure as the driven snow”, “blazing eyes”, and the like are invisible to the reader. They’ve been used so much, they are no longer seen by the reader’s eye. Look for fresh, imaginative ways to describe; look for the small but telling detail. Chekhov admonished writers to make description “very brief and ought to seize upon the little particulars, grouping them in such a way that, in reading, when you shut your eyes, you get a picture.” Chekhov felt it a sin to overdescribe (I agree!), that the good writer gives just enough detail to evoke the reader’s knowledge of life. This is why fresh description is so important. There should be little of it but what there is should be newly-created. Chekhov also had another interesting opinion. That the writer should write a beginning, a middle, and an end...and then cut the beginning and end because what’s left is the story. Very often, this is a good way to look at your stories. Helps get rid of those insidious backstories and setups beginning writers seem to favor...

Speaking of spareness in description, an interesting fact is that Hemingway’s entire vocabulary in the whole of his published writing involved only 8,000 words. And yet, what superior writing! Look at this brief description from The Sun Also Rises for an example of description that works well:

“The coffin was loaded into the baggage car of the train, and the widow and the two children rode, sitting, all three together, in an open third-class railway-carriage. The train started with a jerk, and then ran smoothly, going down grade around the edge of the plateau and out into the fields of grain that blew in the wind on the plain on the way to Tafalla.”

Don’t we get a complete physical picture of where these people are? There is no flowery, purple prose involved; the words used to depict the scene are spare, plain...and they work!

When description doesn’t work, or falls flat, it is usually because of the overuse of weak adverbs and adjectives. Voltaire observed that the adjective is the enemy of the noun and the adverb is the enemy of the verb. John Gardner said, “Adverbs are either the dullest tools or the sharpest tools in the novelist’s toolbox.”

Adjectives may seem to strengthen nouns when in fact they usually weaken them. Adverbs are not designed to augment a verb--as in walked slowly--but to create friction with the verb or change its meaning. For an exercise (not an assignment - just something to illustrate for yourself how this works), pair the following adverbs with different verbs to see how they change those verbs: conscientiously, uncharacteristically, reluctantly, furtively, and relentlessly.

All of this is not meant to say to not use adverbs and adjectives. Used thoughtfully, these sentence components can sharpen and illuminate prose, as in the following examples:

She had been to Germany, Italy, everywhere that one visits acquisitvely.
Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September

She jammed the pedal to the floor, and like something huge and pre-historic and pea-brained, the Jeep leapt stupidly out of its stall.
Sharon Sheehe Stark, A Wrestling Season

So closely had we become tied to the river that we could sense where it lay and make for it instinctively like cattle.
W.D. Wetherell, Chekhov’s Sister

When Sula first visited the Wright house, Helene’s curdled scorn turned to butter.
Toni Morrison, Sula

With a bladdery whack it (the boat) slapped apart and sprang away.
Sharon Sheehe Stark, A Wrestling Season

Hank was not accepted at Harvard Law School; but goodhearted Yale took him.
John Updike, “The Other”

On the far side of the room, under the moiling dogs the twins are
Francois Camoin, “Baby, Baby, Baby”

In contemporary fiction, description has become active and this is one of the features that separate it from more archaic writing. This is one of my personal criticisms of some high school English teachers, that they teach archaic styles of writing description. (My apologies to H.S. English teachers, of which there are many good ones...somewhere...) There is a logical reason for this. Many times, they are teaching the so-called “classics” and holding them up to be models. While it is instructive to read the “masters”, they should be read in context; that is, within their time period. Oftentimes, they are not, alas, but are held up as examples of how to write well. Let me give you an example.

Let’s say there was a woman living in Ames, Iowa a hundred years ago. She took a summer vacation in Australia and when she returned she wrote a novel based on her experiences there. In describing a kangaroo, she used six paragraphs to describe the animal, utilizing many clever similes and adjectives to do so. It was a wonderful work of art (for the time) but today’s writer would simply say the word “kangaroo” to describe the animal. I mean, we’ve all seen a kangaroo at this stage of our history, if not live in a zoo, at least on television or in a movie. There is no need to go into this much description in today’s world of information. But the teacher who used this model improperly would point out the author’s use of descriptive static language and the student who best emulated it would receive the better grade. Thus rewarded, he or she would go on to fill her pages with purple, flowery descriptive prose which is no longer in vogue. And probably end up teaching English herself and...

She (this imaginary student) would then write, say, a beach scene, using all kinds of flowery description to draw for the reader a mental picture of the waves and sand, when today’s writer would take that same description and make it shorter and more succinct and combine action with it. As in, “As he raced off the access road onto Bryan Beach, moonlight glinted off a piece of broken glass.” (Italics mine) This creates the entire visual scene of a beach in just a few short words.

That is the fault of Melville’s Moby Dick. For the first third of the novel, we are “treated” to reading everything we never wanted to know about a whale. That was fine for Melville’s time; readers didn’t have access to the Discovery Channel and didn’t know much about whales. Today, we all have a fairly good idea of what whales look like and even much about their lives and habits and the first thing an editor today would cut would be the first third of Mobey Dick.

Details are what makes a story become real for the reader. Details are what (effective) liars use to make their story believable. That reminds me. In my home, on a sign above my desk, I’ve posted an old Welsh saying that says, “Tell a story, tell a lie, or get out.” That’s all we are as storytellers--liars! Of course, in a non-pejorative way! Probably... Well, sometimes...

We use details to bring abstract ideas to life. It is not enough to talk of bigotry or wealth or a person’s “goodness”, we must bring these concepts to life in a concrete way with the use of descriptive sensory details, similes, and metaphors. For example, we have probably all been treated to a parent’s admonishment to “ all your vegetables--there are millions starving in Biafra who would love to have what you’re wasting.” This carries none of the weight it would if the parent say: “Eat all your vegetables. Mrs. Miller next door has been out of work for six months and last night I saw her going through our garbage can. She'd love to have what you're wasting." The parenting unit in this instance has rendered the abstract to the particular and it drives the lesson home. The same is true in writing. Don’t say your character is a liar; gives us a scene in which he lies. Don’t write that your character is poor; show us a scene in which he checks parking meters for change. Don’t state that your character is elderly; show her having trouble climbing a stairs. Use the kinds of details that show us that. The stairs were pitched steeply; they seemed endless, reaching to the sky; they were slippery with floor polish; the handrail was broken, etc. Reduce the vague to a small particular and then it comes alive and rings true.

Go back through your stories and try and find places where better use of detail and description will make the writing stronger and more believable.

Exercise Sensory Power.

The written word shouldn't just be read. It should be felt, tasted, smelled, heard, and seen. It should be experienced.

A lot of the time, as writers, we have movies playing in our heads. Characters talk and move; scenery whizzes by; secrets are whispered; bad guys die; heroes triumph. We see the stories in our minds and we write the words on the page.

One problem that can occur, though, is that we write what we "see," and we forget that there is a lot in our story to tell with the other senses, like smells, tastes, the feel of things, and sounds.

I bet if you went back through your manuscript or story and marked all the sensory words, you'd find that the vast majority of them are descriptions of the way things or people look. Not too many would be about the way something tasted, or the texture of an object, or the smell, whether it's rancid or flowery, or the everyday sounds.

You don't want your readers to just drift through your book, seeing the movie in your head. A film, even a scratch-and-sniff 3-D concoction, is inferior to a book in the ability of the author and reader to explore the senses. With a book, you have the opportunity to pull the reader in, not only with the sense of sight, but with all the other senses. Make use of that opportunity and your plot will be richer.

Instead of telling the reader that Mary is angry, show us her anger. Let us hear the door slam and the glass shatter. Let us feel the bits of glass etching her palm as she reaches for the door handle. Let us hear the glass crunching under her shoes as she paces, smell and taste the bitter coffee she sips.

When you are describing that Florida coastline, palm trees swaying, consider letting your readers feel the grit of the sand, taste the brine, smell the car exhaust, hear the pounding surf.

I'm not saying that every time you describe something, you have to include all five senses. But, certainly, try to throw in more than just what can be seen. Yes, this harkens back to the old saying of Show, Don't Tell, but it's more than that. I'm saying, yes, Don't Tell, but also Don't Just Show. At least not in the sense of letting the reader "see" everything. There's more to life than what we can see.

You can write about a small girl in an orchard, picking a fresh peach. You can describe the trees, what the girl is wearing, the color of the fruit. Now, close your eyes and go beyond sight. How does the peach feel in her hands? How does it smell? Is the sun hot? The tree shade cool? How does the peach taste? Does it drip down her chin? Is it sticky? How does the wind sound as it ripples through the leaves? Is it loud? Whispering? Does it tickle her skin?

One way to check whether you have Exercised Sensory Power is to take a hard copy of your story or novel and mark it up. Highlight sensory words. Use a different color marker for each of the five senses. My guess is that your work will be primarily the color you chose for sight.

Count your descriptions of each of the five senses. If you're especially weak in one of the senses, go back and find areas or scenes where you could edit. You don't have to go overboard. A little added here and there will greatly enhance your writing, and the reader's experience of your words.

Transport your readers into another world, then make that world real to them by triggering all of their senses. If you use all five senses, chances are you'll also hook your readers emotionally. And once you do that, they'll want more.

Blue skies,


Shannon O'Donnell said...

I love this! I've bookmarked it and printed a copy for my writing folder. Next time I do a post on details, I'll include it as a link.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Shannon. One thing that always crops up in writing workshops and with teachers is the blanket admonition to "don't use adverbs." Well, like a lot of things, the advice is well-intended, but sometimes amiss. Adverbs, used with originality, can be one of the sharpest tools in the writer's toolbox, but oftentimes that part of the wisdom is overlooked.