by Ashley Lister
Happy New Year everyone. I hope 2019 brings you all that you deserve, and may your happiness and pleasure be enviable.
Last month I wrote about the importance of description and the lovely Lisabet Sarai was sufficiently sagacious to remind me that it’s a common error in new writers to include too much description. Consequently, I thought that this month we could look at balance in writing and description.
Before we begin, I’d seriously recommend watching this video from the hilarious Weird Al.
I think this song illustrates how easy it is to overwrite any piece of fiction. Weird Al is parodying ‘Trapped in the Closet’ and is doing it with his usual panache and style. In one scene, when the couple have decided to go out for a meal, we’re treated to the following lines:
“We head out of the front door.
Open the garage door.
Then I open the car door.
And we get in those car doors.
Put my key in the ignition.
And then I turn it sideways.
Then we fasten our seatbelts…”
This is funny because it’s so much unnecessary detail: far more detail than any audience would ever want. However, if this was in a piece of fiction, we wouldn’t be enjoying it. Rather than feeling as though they were immersed in the physicality of the situation, our reader would simply become bored with the iteration of dull minutiae. And the golden rule of all fiction is: never bore the reader.
So, how does this apply to description? Well, frustratingly, description can sometimes be the dullest part of a piece of fiction. Below is my least favourite piece of description in all of literature:
One step brought us into the family sitting-room, without any introductory lobby or passage: they call it here ‘the house’ pre-eminently. It includes kitchen and parlour, generally; but I believe at Wuthering Heights the kitchen is forced to retreat altogether into another quarter: at least I distinguished a chatter of tongues, and a clatter of culinary utensils, deep within; and I observed no signs of roasting, boiling, or baking, about the huge fireplace; nor any glitter of copper saucepans and tin cullenders on the walls. One end, indeed, reflected splendidly both light and heat from ranks of immense pewter dishes, interspersed with silver jugs and tankards, towering row after row, on a vast oak dresser, to the very roof. The latter had never been under-drawn: its entire anatomy lay bare to an inquiring eye, except where a frame of wood laden with oatcakes and clusters of legs of beef, mutton, and ham, concealed it. Above the chimney were sundry villainous old guns, and a couple of horse-pistols: and, by way of ornament, three gaudily-painted canisters disposed along its ledge. The floor was of smooth, white stone; the chairs, high-backed, primitive structures, painted green: one or two heavy black ones lurking in the shade. In an arch under the dresser reposed a huge, liver-coloured bitch pointer, surrounded by a swarm of squealing puppies; and other dogs haunted other recesses.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
As a piece of description, I think this is effective and I can’t fault Brontë for the detail of her description. I can clearly picture the villainous old guns and the liver-coloured pointer. But I think this also slows down the pace of the story and, speaking personally, I think there is a strong danger of the reader becoming bored. The description is static – nothing is moving and nothing seems to be happening other than the narrator standing in the doorway and taking a mental inventory of what he can see.
By contrast, this is how I started a piece of description on a short story:
The parlour was quiet enough so Victoria could hear the tick of the Grandfather from the hall outside. Stark spring sunlight filtered through the net curtains to illuminate the elegant furnishings. The family’s finest bone china was laid out on a lily-white tablecloth. The afternoon tea was completed with freshly baked French fancies. Sitting comfortably in one of the parlour’s high-backed chairs, Victoria placed one lace-gloved hand over the other, adjusted her voluminous skirts, and stared down at Algernon as he knelt before her.
She knew what was coming.
She had anticipated this day for months.
Before he started to speak, she knew what he was going to say.
It was the first time they had ever been together without a chaperone. Unless he had come to the house with this specific purpose her parents would not have allowed her to spend any time alone with a suitor. The idea of her being alone with a man was simply too scandalous for civilised society to contemplate.
“Victoria, my dearest,” he began.
There was a tremor of doubt in his voice. Victoria liked that. It suggested he wasn’t entirely certain that she would say yes. His bushy moustache bristled with obvious apprehension. His Adam’s apple quivered nervously above his small, tied cravat. His large dark eyes stared up at her with blatant admiration. He looked as though his entire future happiness rested on her response to this single question.
Here, what I’ve tried to do is make the description dynamic rather than just being static. We hear the sound of the clock. The sunlight is filtering through net curtains and Victoria is adjusting her voluminous skirts. I’ve also tried to use description to help build the narrative tension. So, in the final paragraph, when the reader is wondering what Algernon is going to ask, and how Victoria is going to respond, I’m drawing out the moment by describing Algernon’s appearance, from his bristling bushy moustache to his quivering Adam’s apple.
Description allows us to inhabit the world the writer has created, but there is a time and a place for it. Too much unnecessary detail leads down the road of the Wonderful Weird Al song. Description that is static slows down the pace of a story. Keep your description dynamic, and have it work to keep your reader interested.