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.

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

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