Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Description has a bad rap: bland, boring, basic. But it's also true that description is often overdone, or done badly.
In Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, literary agent Jessica Page Morrell explains that good description should get readers out of their worlds by anchoring them in the setting and creating mood. Good description also reveals character and develops emotions. It establishes credibility for future events, and it intensifies scenes, slowing the pace and causing the reader to linger. In short, it’s primarily through description that the abstract is made understandable and that readers are able to suspend disbelief.
Good description is beautiful, and as Mark Doty says, “Beauty is simply accuracy, to come as close as we can to what seems to be real.”
An obvious path to good description is attentiveness, which is broader than you might think. Sensory images are lovely. We draw meaning from what we see and intimacy from what we taste and touch. Sounds focus our attention, while smells affect the limbic, primitive part of our brains.
From sensory images, it’s a short hop to show, don’t tell, that old writer’s adage. It’s among the first lessons writers learn: Telling reads like synopsis, while showing reads like art.
But it’s also possible to get way too much of a good thing, especially if you think showing happens only through sensory images. In fact, if taken too much to heart, show, don’t tell is bad advice. Study the writers you love, and you’ll find that part of showing is telling: what characters think, how they feel, what it all means.
Consider this passage from one of my favorite authors, Seth Kantner, in his novel Ordinary Wolves:
Dawna stood still. The morning night and streetlight shared shadows on her face, glinting her eyes, laying dusk caves under her chin. Frost jeweled the black silk of her hair. She stood with her knees close, slightly bent in the cold, her stiff hard tennis shoes pressed together. A smile lifted the top line of her lip, folding it back provocatively. Behind her the school waited, for me a terribly cold heated place, for Dawna a pasture of popularity. My chest was full of air and empty. I loved her. I wanted to hold her. The magazines and TV didn’t know; beauty was Eskimo and brown and named Dawna Wolfglove.
We see the shared shadows, the glint in her eyes, her frost-jeweled hair. We see how Dawna stands, how she smiles. But it’s the oblique parts that set this description apart: the dusk caves lain under her chin, the school a cold heated place, the chest full of air and empty. And the telling is crucial : I loved her. I wanted to hold her. The magazines and TV didn’t know; beauty was Eskimo and brown and named Dawna Wolfglove.
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” If description were only a matter of precise, camera-like attentiveness, we wouldn’t have this beautiful line from George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
“Description is made both more moving and more exact when it is acknowledged that it is invariably INCOMPLETE,” Doty says, invoking capital letters as he points out that not everything can be described, or needs to be. “The choice of what to evoke, to make any scene seem REAL to the reader is a crucial one,” he adds. A few elements to ground the reader, and a few to evoke surprise - these, Doty says, will rescue a scene from the generic – from the bland, boring, and basic.
Try This: Freewrite a scene showing yourself in your childhood home, revealing specific emotions tied to specific times and/or corners within the place. The scene may be fiction or fact. Do plenty of showing, but don't be afraid to strategically tell, acknowledging what can't be said or evoking surprise.
Check This Out: Poet Mark Doty ponders The Art of Description in a slim volume by the same name from Graywolf Press. The book reads like a lot like a poem, packed with beauty and distilled thoughts and lyrical lines from the masters.