20 February 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Description

Last week I got a bit obsessed with Description...the whole idea of lining up adjectives to explain to someone else what I was referring to--some place, perhaps, or a person I know.

My obsession reached a feverish pitch as I collected so-called description essays from my first-year college students. As I read through them (marking the obvious errors of spelling and grammar, suggesting different sentence structure, recommending additional content, and so on), I began to wonder what we really mean when we talk about description.

Then I realized, like a thump in the head from some wily Muse, what I was teaching my students might have far-reaching implications for my fellow fictioneers!

Describing Description

In Composition classes, we have exercises in which we pile up adjectives to describe a physical space, such as a classroom. That's fairly easy, but not so gratifying. Those kind of details might be sexy to a contractor planning a remodeling but not so interesting to the average reader. Perhaps because of my night job as a writer, I tend to notice things that most people don't (both a curse and a blessing), but I believe that when we have the chance to contemplate the things we encounter, we do make the details meaningful--somehow.

Of course, we discuss using the five senses in descriptions. The visual is always prominent, and hearing and smell come along sometimes. Taste is difficult to work in if you are describing, say, a house--unless you describe the dinner being prepared there, of course. And "touch" might be a bit awkward if you are describing a person. Fortunately, touch also works in a figurative way, just as a heart can be warm. The "sixth" sense also lends itself to wider use because of the mental associations we tend to make with the various details we encounter.

Examples of Description

When we note details of visual or other sensory input, we tend to also apply particular thoughts and feelings to those details. By way of convenient examples, let me use the opening pages of my forthcoming novel A BEAUTIFUL CHILL.

In the first sentence we have several details which are both visual and contextual. What I mean by visual is obvious: what is seen by the character who is introduced in the second sentence. By contextual, I refer to the connotations those visual details might have for the character. Snow is snow, yes, but what other meanings might snow have in the context of the scene? She tells us as we eavesdrop on her thoughts.

     Snow settles wet and heavy against the frosted windows, each fluffy flake fondling its kin, kissing and cuddling like a happy family reunion.
, if only it were so, she thinks, permiting a cautious smile to unfold.
And with each new snowflake that comes to visit, the snow family grows, and as it grows it transforms into ice, bears down against the glass, scratching and scoring it in uncomfortable patterns. With time, it crystalizes its history in twisted hoarfrost. Her smile crumples, disappears.

Here we have details which are primarily visual but, as the heroine is introduced, we understand that what we see is what we see through her eyes, hence the details become contextualized.

At first we might feel uncomfortable with the alliteration in that first sentence, but the next sentence gives us the fact that we are seeing, and thinking, about the snow on the window in the way she is thinking of it. A person might believably think of what she sees in a fun, poetic way, especially while passing the time. The first sentence is actually part of her thoughts.

Besides the visual details, then, we also gain emotional details of both the scene and the character who experiences the scene. As I always emphasize to my students the need to include thoughts and feelings about certain details, we must always see the sensory details of a place through the context of the characters who experience them. There is no objective description.

Description provides sensory details, yes, but also various associations the characters have with those details.

We also can describe action. Fight scenes and car chases come to mind, but even the simplest movement can provide further descriptive details which not only show us what is happening but, again, add context to other details. A little further down the first page of A BEAUTIFUL CHILL, we have some simple action:

Turning from the windows, she hangs her coat on the back of the chair and sits there to slip off her boots. She stands and takes the hem of her dress in her hands, pulls the dress up and over her head, her breasts bobbing free and her bare torso feeling a chill. She digs her thumbs under the waistband of her gray leggings and rolls it over her hips and bum, and down her legs, snapping them off her feet and wiggling her toes. She neatly folds her clothing, sets them on the chair, and waits.
A good blanket of snow can hide so much, she knows, once more returning her gaze to the snowy windows. Like clothing. Yet every spring, when the snow melts, the scars remain like wheel ruts cut into the soil, ruts that dry and harden during summer only to be covered again with the next season’s snow.

It is a simple description of a model undressing for a class, yet we do not yet have the proper context in the scene--it's an art class and she is the new model is the context which is deliberately delayed by the sneaky author. So, as it stands, we are left to wonder what's happening, not knowing yet what the context is. Why is she undressing? Is it going to be a sexual or erotic situation? The description of her movements themselves are presented simply and casually; there is no intention to make it particularly sexy--which adds more context to the "objective" details of the scene. We also get some further ideas about her from what she wears (or does not wear) and also how she treats her clothing.

The descriptive paragraph is followed by her on-going internal monologue regarding the snow. The clothing reminds her of how snow covers the ground. Context: there is similarity between clothed people and the ground covered with snow. At least, in her mind. What does that connection tell us about her mindset?

Write your answer here: ____________________________________________________

Descriptions commonly include adjectives but also may include metaphors and similes, those words and phrases which we understand to mean something else than just what the words may immediately present. If we say Joe is a lion on the football field, we don't mean he runs down players and chomps into their haunches for dinner but that he is ferocious as a football player. Nor if we say George is as strong as an ox do we mean that he can pull a two-ton wagon but, rather, he is simply stronger than most guys. Metaphors and similes are comparisons. We use them to describe something by saying what else it may be similar to or alike in some way. In fiction (dare I say "good" fiction?), metaphors often can be quite subtle and when used sparingly make for deeply nuanced description.

As we continue to the next page of the novel, our heroine, the model arriving in the art studio for her first time, surprises the instructor, an old professor who expects his regular lady to be there.

“And you are...?” [says the art professor]
She keeps her face on guard. “I am Íris.”
He repeats her name as though it were a strange, new color: “Eeeeris.”
,” she says, and adds a curt nod.
She remembers when she was a little girl, the first day of school or some such mythic time, a long time ago, at any rate. Her teacher told her she didn’t belong. “No iris grows here, none at all,” said the old woman from behind her desk, checking a ledger and not looking at the child. “Your parents likely had no intention of you staying. We’ll see what good you can do until then. A pretty smile won’t get you very far, that’s for sure. Much less for that devil’s hair you’re wearing.” Thinking back, she does not believe she knew how to cry. She  went to her assigned desk and sat quietly, as expected, and stared out the frosty windows at the snow gathering against the panes, already feeling a chill.

Did you find the metaphor? It's hiding in plain sight. Her name has multiple meanings, one of which triggers her memory hoard. Her name obviously can refer to a flower, but also to a part of the eye (a metaphor for seeing? having insight?) and, as we learn later, the virtual bridge between heaven and earth in Greek mythology (and in Norse mythology, though under the name "Bifrost").

The moment in the present, however, becomes an open door to a moment in the past, and through this link we come to understand how she thinks of her name. From how she thinks of her name, we understand more about how she thinks of herself and her place in the world. And we further link that image and that idea of not belonging with the image of snow from the beginning of the chapter--creating a new metaphor that will become a major theme throughout the novel.

Descriptions are not merely decorations or clinical explanations of objective facts about time and space, but are keys to virtual doors that open to deeper meaning.

In the opening pages of the novel, the scene is intended to be very lonely, of course--even though it occurs indoors and there are a dozen or so people present. For the heroine, it is a vulnerable situation. To make the reader feel what she feels, we are presented with the details she notices--and don't get details she ignores. Snow and ice equal coldness which translates as the world is a cold place. Clothing makes the cold place tolerable. But then she must strip off her clothing, thus removing protection from the cold world. The final challenge is for her to stand nude before the crowd of art students--probably one of the bravest things anyone can do (so I've been told)--yet she handles it with all the dignity she can muster. That nakedness, vulnerability, "me against the world" kind of loneliness combines to create a new metaphor which will play out through the novel.

From this humble beginning, the heroine grows and learns to find her way through the experiences which follow, leading to life-altering complications (of course, that's the point of a novel) which test her resolve and force her into painful choices. You can read more here.

In our discussion of description, we realize that as writers we must be concerned not only with the particular details which our senses notice, but also consider how each of those details might have further associations for our characters. We must consider how any detail provokes thoughts and feelings and how these may open memories which illuminate the situation or the character's mindset, or set up metaphors which will serve as motifs, which serve as further images and contexts. It becomes a house of mirrors, where you see yourself endlessly. In a novel, we see the hero and heroine endlessly through images and thoughts and feelings.

Description thus includes (notes for the test)

  • sensory details (adjectives and their cousins)
  • thoughts and feelings about the sensory details (ephemeral yet vivid)
  • memories linked to sensory details as well as related thoughts and feelings (with dream-like fuzziness?)
  • action and movement (avoid excessive adverbs!)
  • metaphor and simile...and the motifs and themes which may evolve from them
  • dialogue - what characters notice and choose to say, how they describe it, what they leave out

In this description of description, it seems that 90% of all writing is descriptive. Yet is that such a bad thing?

If you want bonus points, try John Gardner's famous exercise whereby you describe a funeral without using any words related to death, dying, deceased, etc.

(C) Copyright 2010-2011 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. And sometimes description can be condensed by painting a picture with fewer words...

    An example: His boss had more dandruff than hair.

    Some readers will see a man with a beer belly hanging over his belt and showing through a split in his shirt; others will see a thin, wiry man with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a pack of cigarettes rolled up into his T-shirt sleeve.

    If the character is a walk-on character, rather than a dramatic one, it really doesn't matter what he looks like to the reader, and yet, at the same time, you've created something visual for the reader, a picture that the reader creates for him or herself, i.e., the reader makes a contribution.

  2. WOW...trying to get those Bonus Points and that is NOT an easy thing to do! Hmmmmm.............