Devils in the Details
I’ve rarely come across a reader who feels anything but extreme love or hate regarding descriptions in narratives – that is, physical descriptions of people, objects, or places. Digressions into descriptive phrases seem to evoke, time and again, exasperation:
“I don’t care if his shoes are blue! It’s pointless!! Get on with the story!”
People who get frustrated at reading descriptions often seem to be frustrated at words for words’ sake (which is totally understandable). This reaction might be compounded if writers write descriptions solely for description’s sake, because they love the details of their world, feel attached to a mental image of a person or place, or simply have a visually oriented mind.
The problem is not, then, “Does description matter?” The underlying issue is one of meaningfulness, and of context. The question at hand becomes, “Is this description purposeful?”
The question at hand becomes, “Is this description purposeful?”
In its truest form, a physical description of a person or place is simply another form of exposition. It tells the reader something about the world, its background, and the narrative of the story at hand. It’s a way to build on tone and themes by tying appearance to essence. It’s a way to expound on character and setting and tie them to their role in a story.
The purpose of description is not to fill up space, or lovingly discuss every frill on a nobleman’s collar, but to present vital information that makes a conscious or unconscious, literal or symbolic, impression on the reader’s mind. It needs to tell us something about character or plot. When it does, it’s beyond powerful.
Writers can ask themselves the following questions when looking to describe something, and readers can ask themselves whether or not a description is answering these same questions:
- What does it tell me about the characters?
- What does it tell me about that world?
- How does it progress the story?
- How does it support the themes?
Let’s take the case of a red wall. Does it matter to a story that a wall is painted red, as a simple fact? Maybe not.
However, is the paint mottled and flaking from water damage, because its owners don’t tend to their property? Is the red faded and thin because it was painted years ago, over a layer of stucco that composed an Italian restaurant? Are there rectangular stains along the wall, from where paintings used to hang?
Wall of the Palace Museum, Beijing
Let’s take the additional case of one of the landlords of the property above. Does it matter to the story that she has bright pink nail polish? Again, maybe not.
But what if the nail polish is gaudy and cheap-looking, not just bright? How about if it’s chipped on her pinky from where she compulsively picks it? Is the polish sloppily applied along the cuticle, showing us haste and carelessness? Does it match her clothing, perhaps illustrating a preoccupation with outward appearance?
Details and observation: These are key tools of a writer, or artist of any medium. Transcribing these minor details can leave a potent impression on the reader. Eyes need to stay open and attentive to the daily canvas of details we might otherwise overlook.
If I say the phrase “War in the Middle East,” maybe the words evoke nothing. On the other hand, if I describe in detail a man caught in the blast of a bomb in Syria – wailing on the ground, his face shredded by debris, the minced stump of his leg spitting blood past a splintered bone nub – it becomes far more real. If I bring you there to the moment, in person, by eliciting visuals that you yourself would notice, then I’ve succeeded in making the scene vivid. The reality of “War in the Middle East” becomes much more apparent than it would have been otherwise.
Descriptions bring out this kind of reality. Whole objects and events are composed of the tiniest fragments of moment-to-moment sensory information. This is the only way we know anything.
The greater point, though, is not about learning to write descriptively v. non-descriptively. It’s not about being skilled at or appreciating one or the other. It’s about eliminating the division between context and action. It’s about fusing a physical environment with characters and themes. It’s about recognizing that nothing exists outside of the context of location and physicality. It’s about transforming spatial awareness into a vehicle that tells us what we need to know about that world. It’s about making the environment another powerful actor in our narrative.
To illustrate, here’s an exercise focused on environmental imagery:
The next time you go to your favorite bar, ask yourself why you like it so much. Try to deconstruct what about the place you love: the volume of ambient light, the sheen of the counters, the softness of the wood, the way sound refracts, the shape of the glass you tend to drink whiskey from, or the texture of the glass’ surface. Understand what about the environment creates your feeling towards it, and then reassemble those factors into whatever you want, whenever you want, when you’re writing.
Then, recognize how the space in question reflects the events within it. Ask yourself if the same conversations that occur there would occur in a different context. Connect the two. You’ll find that not only does nothing exist outside of context, but context in fact defines action. No single thought, occurrence, choice, opinion, or belief has ever existed outside the confluence of factors that led to it. Those factors cannot exist outside of the physical.
Not only does nothing exist outside of context, but context in fact defines action.
This is why description is so vital. The wall isn’t “just a red wall,” any more than your beloved pet is “just a dog,” or your wife – with golden hair streaked with red, curling around her ear to kiss the nape of her neck – is “just blond.”
The red wall is history. It tells a story by itself, one that I can hear if I listen. It’s a connection between me and other people – everyone who’s seen the wall and touched it. Knowing precisely how the wall looks and feels makes it more real than a basic description does. It’s a tether between me and a place – something that may have been there before me, and may outlast me after I die. And the chipped fingernail polish on the landlord I described? That’s a link between me and another person – a small, slight, intimate window that deserves to be respected.
And isn’t that one of the highest purposes of art and the artist? To capture things that might be lost if we weren’t looking hard enough?