That Daunting Description

04 September 2012

Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader - not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.
E. L. Doctorow

When the Penslayer herself beckons, the rest of us simply must follow suit. And that is why I am seated here tonight, with the fresh and exciting challenge of describing my descriptions. Splendid idea, yes? I can think of no better way to spend the evening.

The problem with penning description just right is that it is one facet of writing that does not echo real life. When I am waking in the morning and glimpse the golden beams of light streaming through my bedroom window, I do not set out right then and there to exclaim about their beauty, whether mentally or aloud. I notice them, but do not attempt to capture what it is about them that gives one the sensation of laughter. I only know that they are beautiful.

It is easy to fall into such a rut when I'm writing, especially when you consider that the author knows the most about her setting and characters. Why take time to even mention a young woman's dark tresses and harrowing eyes? She is practically my own child, and I have every detail of her features memorized — I need not spend time elaborating on something so obvious. And so I leave my poor readers with the bare bones of a story, something more befitting of an outline than a complete book.

An exercise that has helped to improve my sparse description over time is to approach everyday scenes with the mind of a writer. Little conversations and actions that play before my eyes each day are given fresh color as I attempt to piece them together in a way less like commonplace life and more like a scene in a book. The past year has been one of much growth when it comes to my writing, mainly because of the heartbreakingly beautiful excerpts that are daily published by the bloggers I most admire. Some are poetic, some are heartwarming, some are so funny they make me laugh until tears stream down my face — but all are brilliant. I know my snippets will never reach such a height, but I do look on them with sentimental fondness, rather like a mother on her small children.

He saw [the man] falling, the British infantryman raising his loaded rifle. Sunlight glinted off the steel barrel, concealing the next action from his eyes. He only felt the urge to move, and before his more practical side could object, he was throwing himself between the older man and that mocking rifle. The shot rang in his ears, and the bloody world around him shattered into bits, leaving nothing but an empty black abyss.

My favorite part about description is finding a new way to state something that seems tired and old. Nearly everyone has written at least one scene where a character loses consciousness — it's such a well-worn subject that a reader can easily see through the holes. As we know, there is nothing new under the sun, and human nature always has been and always will be the same. The trick is to find a new way of stating something that has been depicted numerous times.

The wave of emotion passed quickly, and Susannah was left reeling, still making no sense of her sudden change in mood. Why on earth should the headline in a newspaper affect her to such great lengths? The memory of that sudden flash of unnatural rage was so painful that she put the thought out of her mind. Fanny was already coming in to clear the tea things, and Mr. Dixon was folding the offending newspaper and kissing his daughter on the cheek, saying he thought he might continue reading in the library and would be there if she needed him.

Another interesting method for adding color to description is to see the world through the speaker's eyes. A lovesick swain who can think of nothing but his sweetheart is apt to portray her in an almost heavenly glow, while a more practically minded bachelor would imagine her faults and virtues in stark lists (that is, if he bothered to think of them at all, which is doubtful). In this particular scene, Susannah is in something of a daze, and her perception of the world is dreamy, almost ghostlike. She's so preoccupied in her own thoughts that any actions of those around her are melting into the hazy background.

The world refused to stay still; it swirled around him in shades of tawny gold and brilliant scarlet, like oil paints on a palate. So he closed his eyes and focused on taking slow, shallow breaths. That, at least, was manageable.

Kenneth, like most male characters, does not like to admit it when he's failing. He prefers to appear bold and strong, without revealing too much emotion. However, here we have caught him when he is alone, and that mask assumed in the presence of society has slipped just a bit. We are seeing the inside of his mind, and just now he is not only giving us a glimpse of his artist's soul but also of his very human nature.

"My name is Azin." The girl said no more, and even those four words were spoken with some measure of hesitation, as if she questioned their validity.

Azin is a difficult character for me to portray, mainly because she is such a little wisp of a girl, both in looks and manner. Her words and actions are fleeting and hard to catch on paper, rather like trying to tack down a rose petal: she either slips away or tears into shreds. Because she herself is simple, the way in which I describe her is simple. Azin does not see the world through ruby-tinted glasses a la Anne Shirley; her perception is shadowy, and tinged with bitterness and regret.

And now I'll end with one of my favorite bits of description that I've written thus far:

It was a lonely sky, with no moon or stars to shed even a soft light. Nothing, nothing but this endless night, like a pit that has no bottom. He was alone, and he knew not where he was. He could not move, and yet he felt no pain. The sky seemed to be made of black velvet, and it enveloped him in an embrace that had no sharp edges.

How do you write description?

10 epistles:

  1. I've really, really enjoyed you talking about your writings, Miss Elizabeth. It's one of the greatest things for writers to step back and look at others' writings and not only their own. It's definitely nice to see how you form your descriptions, paragraphs, and thoughts. I love your work!
    -Gabby

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  2. Great thoughts and tips on writing description, Elizabeth Rose! Is Azin from Rifles in the SF? I don't recall her being from there.....

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  3. Rachel — No, Azin is a character from a different book that my sister and I are writing together.

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  4. The last one was my favorite, closely followed by the one about Susannah's reaction to the newspaper headline. It just felt so real, which is what I assume it was meant to do. I echo Rachel to say that you had some great thoughts about writing description at the beginning, too!

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  5. Ah, I have to say that my favorite is the one about the sunlight glinting off the steel barrel of the rifle. It seems to capture RISF really well. :)

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  6. Wow, I just stand in awe - the description is lovely, and I feel like I'm THERE! Your thoughts on writing description, like Miss Dashwood and Rachel said, were just great! :-)

    My favorites were the Newspaper, and the one when Susannah was in a daze. Practically wonderful!

    I think Azin is from the book that Elizabeth Rose and her sister are doing together, but I'm not 100% certain.

    -Fellow writer,
    Patience

    prc(at)calicoacres(dot)com

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  7. I can' pick my favorite, because each of these descriptions were so beautiful! They all took my breath away.

    Description is one of my biggest problems with writing--I don't take the time to describe because, like you said, I know my character so well that I don't think it necessary.

    -Emily

    www.emsalpinepath.blogspot.com

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  8. Oh, Elizabeth, these snippets are lovely! And yet the whole post was very helpful as well; this was an extremely pleasant mix of both! :)

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  9. A lovely, lovely post, Elizabeth! I think your snippets are just beautiful, so vivid and fitting too. I can't choose a favourite, because they are all splendid, but I especially enjoyed the images that came to my mind through those two snippets: "The world refused to stay still; it swirled around him in shades of tawny gold and brilliant scarlet, like oil paints on a palate. So he closed his eyes and focused on taking slow, shallow breaths. That, at least, was manageable." and "It was a lonely sky, with no moon or stars to shed even a soft light. Nothing, nothing but this endless night, like a pit that has no bottom. He was alone, and he knew not where he was. He could not move, and yet he felt no pain. The sky seemed to be made of black velvet, and it enveloped him in an embrace that had no sharp edges."

    I see that, despite the difficulties of writing description, you pull it off brilliantly. Well done indeed! I have never thought much of 'how' I write description, simply because it comes so naturally with me... most of the time :).




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  10. What a wonderful post. That is something I actually just recently began thinking more about. In fact I was taking landscape photography shots the other day and paused deciding to instead write what I was seeing in such a way that would make it feel real. It was a good exercose and fun too. Thank you for sharing :)

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"Gracious words are like a honeycomb; sweetness to the soul and health to the body." —Proverbs 16:24

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