Description, or Contemplating Your Navel

Description is a two-edged sword.  Either you are plucked from your comfortable chair and set smack into the heart of a story, or you realize you should have saved those chopsticks from last night’s dinner so you could gouge out your own eyes.  It all depends on the writer.

Particularly with the Classics, battle-scarred high school graduates remember their Survey of Literature classes with a full-body shudder.  (Two words: Moby Dick.  There, I just shivered again.)  As a result of the unforgettable slog through fifty pages on the whiteness of a whale, many of us skip description altogether.  (It’s amazing how quickly you can get through books this way.)

  But, is there an alternative to skipping the description?

  It helps to look at passages of description with a critical eye.  Why did the author include it at all?  In good writing, the description doesn’t just lend itself to setting a scene, it reflects key issues in the story.  It may actually be a projection of a character’s thoughts and world view.  Often, by the end of the book we have realized that a particularly detailed passage foreshadowed the close of the conflict.

  So, it’s okay to skip the description if it is formulaic and drags the story down.  BUT, pay attention if details are presented from a character’s point of view, as they may lead to larger insights to the story.

  I’m willing to give description a little slack, but I still think Herman should have stuck a sock in it.  Call me Exasperated.

  What do you think?  Do you enjoy reading description?  Writing description?  How are details a propelling force in your favorite pieces of fiction?

  For a closer look at meaningful description, take a look at the works of John Updike and Flannery O’Connor.

Related Articles:

The Art of Reading

A Word About Authors

Narrators & Characters, or Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?

The World is Round – People Are Flat

5 thoughts on “Description, or Contemplating Your Navel

  1. Dear Exasperated,

    I think writers need to know every tidbit and detail surrounding their stories. It helps them to write with authority and opens opportunity for richness of plot. HOWEVER, just because we know every tidbit and detail does not mean we have to share it all with our readers. New writers often do not understand that. I believe the cure is experience, and an ability to harken back to the books you have not enjoyed. Chances are they are full of extraneous description.

  2. Great subject. And a smart comment from kd above. Yes, authors need to know this stuff, but our readers don’t. That’s why we have rough drafts.

    Victorians loved lots of description because 1) they had no film, TV or even colored photographs, and many of them had never been out of their little corner of the world so they genuinely didn’t know what a palm tree looked like. 2) they had long dark nights to fill.

    Modern writers need to learn to give description in a few powerful brushstrokes, instead of endless tiny details. I feel creative writing teachers often do a great deal of harm, teaching students outdated writing techniques.

    1. I agree with your comment about the Victorians. They also read largely in serial form, with chapters coming by the newspaper – one issue at a time. I often wonder if Charles Dickens would have edited much more if he was going straight to novel publishing instead of serialization!

  3. I read in large part for the descriptive passages. And yet … and yet there’s something to what you say. It all depends upon how good the writing is. My favorite descriptive passages come from Blood Meridian, which by the author’s own admission has much in common with Moby Dick, though Moby Dick, a book I ultimately liked, bogged me down.

    1. I’m also interested in how modern authors treat descriptive passages. Historical fiction authors like John Jakes and James Michener are practically social studies textbooks, but the writing is so good, and it adds so much to the story, that I don’t really mind (although I still skim there too).

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