Guest Post: The Power of Description by Richard Milner
I’ve rarely come across a reader who feels anything but extreme love or hate about descriptions in stories – that is, physical descriptions of people and places. Since my teenage years, I’ve heard almost the same phrase repeated over and over again through time, in high-pitched tones of spastic exasperation:
“Oh my Gooooood, I don’t care if the [object] is [color]!! It’s pointless!! Get on with the story!”
(As a side note here: There are obvious cultural influences at play, such as what’s been dubbed “American” brevity and terseness, but those factors are too numerous to go into here.)
From what I’ve witnessed, people who get frustrated at reading descriptions are 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 transforms into, “Is this description purposeful?” Describing something is not simply about what a person or thing looks like, unto itself.
In its truest form, a physical description of a person or place is simply another form of exposition – telling 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 greater themes, by tying appearance to essence. It’s a means to expound on a character and setting, and tie them to their role in a story, within the story’s forward-moving development.
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.
As a writer, ask yourself the following questions when looking to describe something. As a reader, ask yourself whether or not a description is answering these questions:
- What does it tell me about my characters?
- What does it tell me about my world?
- How does it progress the story?
- How does it advance my tone?
- How does it support my themes?
- How does it substantiate my voice?
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?
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. Details and description drive home a real, up-front strength of experience that can’t be related otherwise. Transcribing these minor details leaves a potent imprint on the spirit of 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 it evokes nothing in you. 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 see and notice, then I’ve succeeded in making the scene impactful. 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, absorbed by the form of a human body. This is the only way we, as self-aware individuals, know anything.
The greater point, though, is not about learning to write description vs. non-description. It’s not about being skilled at one or the other, or about appreciating one or the other as a reader. It’s about eliminating the division between context and action. It’s about fusing 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 the world at hand. 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 (thinking of myself with that last one). 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 actions within it. Ask yourself if the same conversations that occur there would occur in a different context. Connect the two: the details of the environment with the essence of what happens within it. 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 of a confluence of factors that describe and define its inception. Those factors cannot exist outside of the physical.
This is why description is so vital. The wall is not simply red. It isn’t “just a red wall.” Nothing is only what it is in when observed in its most reduced form, any more than your beloved pet is “just a dog,” or your wife – with golden hair nuanced by strands of red, curling around her ear to kiss the nape of her neck – is “just blonde.”
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 – all of those who’ve seen the wall, touched it, and brushed against it. Knowing precisely how the wall looks and feels makes it more real than any broader, basic description. 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?