In the past 12 months, I’ve started giving online writing classes via The Writers Workshop as part of my mission to turn writers into skilled self-editors. This month, I delivered an online class called The Art of Descriptive Prose, which was not only a wonderful opportunity to dissect some brilliant descriptive passages from books I love, but also a reminder of an often-neglected function of description: emotional depth.
As an editor, I am sad to say that I rarely come across memorable descriptive prose. Sure, I am often shown a setting, or told what a character is wearing, but these are occasional images or details. But passages of description that take me into the beating heart of a scene, setting or character are rarely well executed.
It’s the writer’s task to select the best narrative mode at every point in the story. Writers may choose between action (characters doing stuff), exposition (narrator explaining stuff), interiority (characters thinking stuff), dialogue (characters talking about stuff), and our topic du jour, description.
Description is the obvious mode of choice when writers need to give the reader critical information about the world of the story (especially important in historical fiction, sci-fi, horror or fantasy), an unusual setting, an important object or, of course, a key character. But when the mode is deployed most powerfully, it works on an emotional level too, either conveying a character’s state of mind and/or eliciting certain feelings in the reader.
In my editorial experience, writers often struggle with the emotional depth of description. It can often result in ‘purple prose’, which is overwritten, overwrought description that often comes off as melodramatic. 'Less is more' when it comes to emotion, and the single most important decision a writer must make is what tone best fits the descriptive moment. Tone is created by vocabulary and syntax (sentence structure), as in the following two examples.
This tone conveys the 'gut emotion' of the character or creates it within the reader. The vocabulary is strong, blunt, literal, shocking, graphic, and sensory. In terms of sentence structure, the visceral favours simple, active sentences, and it can effectively mess with ‘proper’ grammar. How does this passage from Daphne DuMaurier’s story ‘The Birds’ make you feel?
It was pitch dark. The wind was blowing harder than ever, coming in steady gusts, icy, from the sea. He kicked at the step outside the door. It was heaped with birds. There were dead birds everywhere. Under the windows, against the walls. These were the suicides, the divers, the ones with broken necks. Wherever he looked he saw dead birds. No trace of the living. The living had flown seaward with the turn of the tide.
He set to work in the darkness. It was queer; he hated touching them. The bodies were still warm and bloody. The blood matted their feathers. He felt his stomach turn, but he went on with his work. He noticed, grimly, that every window-pane was shattered. Only the boards had kept the birds from breaking in. He stuffed the cracked panes with the bleeding bodies of the birds.
This tone primarily creates gentle (rather than gut) emotion in the reader. Its vocabulary is wistful, nostalgic, poetic, beautiful, and figurative. The style can rhythmic and the sentence structure elaborate, as illustrated by this passage from Joanne Harris’s The Salt Road:
The ocean has many voices. It sings in the voice of the pilot whale; the voice of dolphin; the waves on the beach. It sings in voice of a thousand birds; it cries in the wind that howls through the rocks upon the distant skerries. But most of all, it sings in voice of selkie; those people of the ocean clans that hunt with the seal, and dance with the waves, and, nameless, go on forever.
The voice of selkie is soft and low. At first you may not hear it. At first you may mistake it for the cry of a bird, or the bark of the seal, or the sound of the tide on the pebbles. But listen, and you will realize that each of those sounds is a story—the crunch of pebbles underfoot; the splash of a leaping mackerel; the cry of a sea-eagle hunting above the white rocky shores of the islands.
In addition to the tone, there are several literary devices that help build emotional layers in description. There is no time to get into all of them here, but two common devices are:
Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.
One may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.
Finally, it’s important to remember that effective description is often about restraint because your reader’s own imagination can be the most powerful tool at your disposal. Stephen King wrote in On Writing that ‘description should begin in the writer’s imagination and end in the reader’s.’ Sage advice indeed. If you trust your reader to build a fulsome image of their own, based on well-chosen details you’ve provided, you make them a co-creator of your book and they will have a stronger stake in your story.
In conclusion, here are few more description tips:
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith