This week’s blog is all about description; breathing life into the worlds that we’re trying to create.
As writers, we’re constantly looking for ways to connect with readers’ senses, so that they can see, hear, taste, smell and feel all the building blocks that make those worlds unique (e.g. places, events, people, cultures, objects). And by ‘feel’ of course, I don’t just mean the physical sensation of touch, I’m also talking about the emotion, empathy or lightbulb moment of understanding that a piece of carefully crafted description can evoke.
Great description is often so much more than conveying details with a bit of cleverly placed imagery (though we all love a nice simile). It’s also about painting a memorable impression of what is going on both externally and internally. Anyway, instead of trying to describe what we mean by good description, why don’t we share a few examples with you…
Good description should completely immerse your senses in the place and the moment and I’ve picked a heck of a moment for my choice this week; the outstanding opening scene of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman:
‘ There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.
The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.
The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of night-time mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.’
(Gaiman, Neil, The Graveyard Book. London, Bloomsbury, 2009, p.3.)
Terrifying! The language used here is straightforward and economical but the result is a startlingly vivid scene. Neil Gaiman throws us headlong into the horror of what’s just happened, kicking off with that creepy disembodied hand and the knife – almost a character in its own right. And of course, deep down, we all have at least a trace of that heart quickening, primitive fear that he’s tapping into; the dark (or is it only me that’s still a little bit scared of turning that last light off at night, in case something or someone leans forward from the chair in the corner of the room, just to say ‘Hello’?).
The menacing description of the knife, with its alliterative handle of polished death, makes you check yourself over – just to make absolutely sure you haven’t been sliced unawares before you’ve reached the next paragraph! However, it’s throwing in that normally innocuous little word ‘almost’ that is possibly the most chilling element of the whole excerpt. We know that whatever horror has happened so far, there’s more to come. And even though it’s written in the past tense, so technically we are safe – probably – for now, when I read ‘almost,’ I nevertheless feel so immersed in the description, I can’t help feeling that I should be silently but frantically tiptoeing around that house looking for an exit, or failing that, climbing into a wardrobe to hold my breath, stifle my pathetic sobs and hope for the best!
We don’t even see the victims of the evil that the knife has been up to but the genius of the description means that we don’t need to be shown. The word ‘wet’ brings out a visceral response in the reader (or in me at least) and really tells us everything we need to know. Our imagination is let loose, to either fill in the gory gaps, or else try and think of puppies and kittens to block it out if we prefer. So effective!
Then finally – there’s the man, entering the scene, in league with the reptilian like mist snaking in from the night. I’m still in the wardrobe – someone tell me when it’s safe to come out!
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Quite possibly my favourite book of 2015. Chillingly realistic, with characters that felt like family within a few pages, the real standout for me was the description. Now, I don’t mean picturesque, adjective-ridden descriptions of the scenery and landscape, though these were stunning. No, I mean description so powerful that every scene felt like it was on a TV screen, every character sketched fully formed before your eyes, in your head…well, you know what I mean!
I love dystopia, but this isn’t just a dystopian novel.
It’s a story of humanness. And how we all act so very differently in different situations.
It’s commonly said that the only way to truly see a person’s character is to change their environment. Remove them from their comfort zone. Take them away from the world they have always known.
And this is precisely what Mandel does. I cannot recommend this book more highly. In the extract I am sharing, this is description which is not superficial, but of the deepest nature.
“No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.”
“Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt. No one delivers fuel to the gas stations or the airports. Cars are stranded. Airplanes cannot fly. Trucks remain at their points of origin. Food never reaches the cities; grocery stores close. Businesses are locked and then looted. No one comes to work at the power plants or the substations, no one removes fallen trees from electrical lines. Jeevan was standing by the window when the lights went out.”
Give me a landscape, beautifully sketched in words…and I’ll admire it, for a moment.
Give me a moment of humanity, fully described…and it will stay with me forever.
Mandel does this and Station Eleven is description of humanity at it’s most honest.
This area had me flummoxed. We don’t, in my opinion, recall books for their description. If description is good it paints the way to see the world the way the author wants us to. We take it for granted, vacuum it up, see pictures in our head and focus on the dialogue, plot and characters.
I read a lot of young adult books and these notoriously don’t have lengthy descriptions within them. They build excitement with swift, vivid sentences then move on. Teens are not interested in pages of visualisation. However, God is in the detail and world building is skilled. Readers don’t like “vague”. All descriptions used must be concise and revealing in order to add to the world.
In Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir one of the first times we see Blackcliff, the Mask’s military school, we are given so little yet learn so much.
The Centurions monitor us from beneath the arches that line the courtyard, hands on their whips as they await the arrival of Blackcliff’s commandant.
For the purpose of this topic, I thought I’d cheat and look at adult books. Of course, there are plenty of greats like Thomas Hardy, master scribbler of heath, hill and vales or, Dicken’s for example, Miss Havisham’s decaying wedding banquet in Great Expectations is one of my favourite scenes in the novel. But below, I have three contemporary examples of texts I love for different reasons.
Richness of language and layers work for me and I think Barbara Kingslover deserves a mention in her impressive book, The Poisonwood Bible, set in Africa. At the beginning of the novel the line below describes the forest.
The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason.
She continues with incredible scene-scaping to make us feel like Africa is a living, breathing, exotic beast, an onion of culture, colour, life, death and complexities.
Jason Hewitt, in his post war-torn novel, Devastation Road continually writes stunning descriptions of his character’s journey through Europe, after waking up in a field, with no immediate memory. Here is a particularly picturesque extract.
He was sitting beside a pool sunk within a sunlit dell, surrounded by boulders and overhanging trees. A small waterfall surged down through a line of rocks littered with broken branches and coursed some eight or nine feet into the pool. Thin-framed dragonflies motored about like silent biplanes, coming in low to scuff the water and swerving the bomb blasts of droplets that splashed from the waterfall. Leaves tumbled around him, spiralling whirligigs drifting down.
I love the way that even in this peaceful setting we’re subtly reminded of the period with, ‘silent biplanes’ and ‘the bomb blast of droplets’, grounding us further with the protangonist.
Sensory description is my favourite type, smell, touch, taste, sound, complete the magic package.
The house smells of pastry, making my mouth water, and I spot a quiche sitting on the table under a fly screen. Somehow a fly has got underneath and is buzzing about angrily, trapped inside. I let it out and the salty-sweet smell comes too. My fingers go quickly to the crust and break off a piece before I can stop them.
The Night Rainbow by Claire King is written from the eyes of a young protagonist, who roams the meadow behind her home with plenty of troubles on her naïve shoulders. The book is so cleverly written in the voice of the child it makes every description real, endearing, poetic and quirky.