What’s important about description in writing stories?
John Schultz, in his Book Writing from Start to Finish, talks about “seeing in the mind” as the essential first step to writing.
When Joseph Conrad tried to explain what his purpose was in writing, he summed it up like this: “To make you see.”
Often, our memories work better with pictures, or more precisely, with sense impressions, than they do with verbal or abstract concepts. Any time we can create or evoke a picture with our words the chances are better that what we write will be remembered. I’ve seen it hundreds of times in writing workshops, but you don’t need to be in a writing workshop to prove it. All you need to do is remember that very few people remember Newtonian laws of thermodynamics; fewer still can recite them accurately; but almost everyone remembers the image of an apple falling from a tree.
The idea is “to make you see.”
Fiction, even in as confined a frame as the short story, is a matter of creating worlds out of words. Whatever places or persons we write about, we need to make them “real” for our readers, and all we have to make them real with are words.
We can look at written language as a means by which an image or an idea in the mind of one person is transferred to the mind of another person. “Imagination” starts with the same root as the word “image.”
If you’re writing a story that occurs in a contemporary setting, much like the world you live in, it’s easy to assume that readers will understand what you mean if you quickly mention a street corner or a taxi. But that’s not always the case. A reader in a different city, a different locale, might not recognize places and objects that you recognize.
Now that’s just a matter of dealing with objective realities. There’s also the matter of subjective realities.
A reader of your story who lives next door and is familiar with every place, person and object that you’re familiar with doesn’t necessarily know how you (or your characters) see all those same places, persons and objects. Every person sees things slightly differently, so it’s always a danger to assume too much about what your readers will comprehend without some elaboration.
Your mind is not the mind of your reader.
These days, we’re reading more stories from different countries and cultures. Literate people in other parts of the world are more likely than ever to read our stories. The ocean of literature has grown wider and deeper. Consequently, the pool of common experiences and references has grown shallower. What is common between people and cultures is found not by looking for generalities but by examining specifics.
Neil Sheehan, author of A Bright, Shining Lie and After the War Was Over, says that good writing is “details, details, details.” Bad writing is often a matter of skimming the surface, sketching where one should delineate, relying upon half-seen images and clichés in place of good description; it summarizes where it should tell and tells where it should show. It misses its own point. It lacks precision.
In writing, the author has sole responsibility over what he or she commits to paper (until the editor gets his or her hands on it). You are the illustrator, the director, the cinematographer – all the jobs that in other arts belong to various members of the creative team. Unless you’re collaborating with another writer your only other collaborator is your audience, whose job it is to build your fictional world in their minds from your careful blueprints, i.e. your story. You can’t pass the blame to anyone else if your story doesn’t work.
That’s why writers are always admonished to “show, not tell” – to reveal a story through the details. This is usually accomplished through visual details, but let’s not leave the other senses out. The smell of a cooking steak, the taste of raisins, the sound of squealing brakes also help build up a “picture” in the reader’s mind. Flaubert, in one of his letters stated that he tried not to let a paragraph go by without appealing to at least three of the reader’s senses.
All of this is fine and good, you might say, but the emphasis of this class is on short stories. How are we supposed to get all this detail in and still keep the story under 7,500 (or however long) words?
Frank O’Connor once said that the success of a short story lies in the “suggestion of continuing life”(italics mine), whereas a novel is free to follow that life to further ends. “Suggestion” is a loaded word, and can be applied a number of ways. In some cases it means not dwelling on details and in other cases it means finding the right detail. For example, it may be less important in a short story to tell the reader the brand name of a shirt one character is wearing than it might be to tell the reader that its owner also uses a plastic pocket protector or that the shirt is stained with barbecue sauce.
Bringing details to readers’ notice is necessary if you want to convince them, for the brief period they’re reading the story, of the “reality” you’ve created. A man pushing a wheelbarrow is an iconic, even cartoonish, image. A man pushing a red wheelbarrow is more specific. A man pushing a red wheelbarrow with a broken handle makes the picture even clearer. (And so much “ … depends/ upon/ a red wheel/ barrow/ glazed with rain/ water/ beside the white/ chickens” as William Carlos Williams is still reminding us)
But how clear has one to be? To follow Chekhov, which details are “not the story”?
Now we’ve entered the tricky part, because it’s often true that while we’re writing our stories in the early stages we don’t always know what the story is and what it isn’t. Writing it down is part of the process we go through to make that determination.
There’s two ways to go about this. The first one is to write down everything. Afterward, you can cut out what you don’t need – what isn’t the story.
The second approach is to write just what you think the story is as briefly as possible, and after careful reading by yourself or a trusted person, put in the things that still need clarification or more precise description, to be understood.
What this means is: never sacrifice clarity for brevity.
There are many questions you might want a reader to ask, but there are other points on which you want a reader to be perfectly clear. If you don’t tell the reader that the central character in your story is a man or woman, rich or poor, dressed or undressed, smooth or rough – the reader will wonder about that. If the reader is spending all his time wondering about these mundane questions, will he or she have the time to wonder about the more important questions you want him or her to consider?
Yes, the old cliché is that you should let readers use their imaginations to summon up the details, but if you don’t give them enough of a picture to stimulate their imaginations, will they really bother?
It is valid, of course, to leave things out in a story to draw your readers’ attention to them because they expect to be told this detail or that detail. That’s what makes stories like James Joyce’s “Araby,” Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover” and John Collier’s exceptional masterpiece “The Chaser” so interesting. But for the reader to be intrigued by the things left hanging in each of those stories, their authors have to set the scene and tell us a good deal about what else is there in those worlds created out of words, to “make us see” things that will make us wonder about those things we don’t see.
As an exercise, think of a fictional character. Dream one up, or go back to a character you’ve been toying with but don’t know what to do with yet. Beginning writers (and many experienced writers who should know better) often give their readers a resume or summary of what their characters are like in the broadest terms, but very little of what they look like or what their environments look like. What’s amazing, though, is how much we can lean about those characters just by knowing what they look like, dress like, or how their homes and neighborhoods look. Try this: write about your fictional character only through details. Try to come up with about five distinctive, observable details. Describe his or her apartment; the kind of clothes he or she wears; the kind of car he or she drives. At work, what’s the most prominent thing on your character’s desk? What does your character eat for lunch? See how much you can tell us about your character without resorting to expository sentences like, “He was very wealthy,” “She had an irrational fear of drowning,” or “He was a vain man” – things like that. In a well-envisioned story, with the right images, such sentences would be redundant.