Friday, December 29, 2006

The Power of Description

Episode One

The Power of Description

I have found that the two planks that good fiction is built upon are adept, powerful description and solid, interesting story.

I know, I know, how about plot and character, and setting and all the other necessities of good fiction? Well, they are, to be sure, indispensable. But first you’ve got to be able to describe well and you’ve got to have a good story.

Now usually description is not mentioned as one of the prime building blocks of good fiction. Most of the time, character and plot are at the top of the list. But I strongly believe that really adept description is necessary for all the rest of the ingredients to work. Follow me a minute.

Human beings perceive the world on four basic levels.
1) the physical
2) the emotional
3) the intellectual
4) the spiritual

Now granted these levels overlap and mix with one another so it’s often impossible to tell which is which, the way it’s impossible to separate out red and yellow from orange. But that fact actually compliments their distinctness and reinforces my theory. Here’s what I mean.

The first and most important principle to understand the power of description is that though most fiction writers want to write about the emotional, intellectual, or spiritual aspects of life, those three levels are controlled by a writer thorough his command of physical description. And this is true because the physical level of existence is inescapably intertwined with the other levels – the emotional, the intellectual, and the spiritual.

For example, if you walk into a mentally disturbed person’s room, that room is often a crazy mess. Stuff everywhere. Order gone amuck. There’s a screaming disregard for themselves and everything around them. Their emotional and spiritual lives are a mess and so is the physical world they inhabit. Now it’s not always the case, but if someone’s nutty, I guarantee you’ll find an obsession or two that signals a mind that’s not quite right. The signs are everywhere, as the prophets say. Every tin can faces exactly forward in the cupboard, boxes and boxes of shoe polish in the pantry, mummy’s fur coat hanging in the closet with mummy still in it. Or, a mess of a room could signal a genius who has no consideration of the physical, or it could just be your lazy son’s holy mess of a bedroom. In any case, the description of that room can help a writer pinpoint a character and tell his story.

If your teenage kid gets himself lost in drugs (god help you), believe me there are physical signs. If you don’t believe me, go to the bookstore and you’ll find a dozen books describing what a parent should look for – plummeting grades, a change in clothing, and a dozen other things. And the key phrase is “should look for.”

That’s what a reader is doing when he reads a good novel; he’s looking for signs. If the writer describes a character’s dress as “flawless, the knot of his tie sharply cut into a perfect square,” he’s signaling the man’s character. This guy might have been in the military or maybe he just wants you to think he was. One thing for sure, the writer wants you to think SOMETHING. Or else he’s not much of a writer. He wants the reader to begin to see in his description of the character and the setting, and all the rest of the ingredients of his story, the signals that will trigger the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual journey he has set in motion. And he does that first of all by describing the physical world.

A Good Writer Carefully Selects What He Describes

A good writer has mastered the description of the physical world and knows how to use it to manipulate the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual worlds his characters inhabit. He can describe physical things vividly, and his selection of what he describes is the key to his power as a writer.

Some writers describe everything in a character or scene. It becomes a veritable catalog of the place and people. And nothing could be more boring to a reader. A good writer picks and chooses what he describes. That selection process inevitably distinguishes the good writer from the bad. (Now John Updike, who is a very good writer, was accused of being a cataloguer, not a describer. But even though his descriptions were sometimes exhausting, most of the time they were brilliant in their detail. But it is an on-going argument. I like Updike, especially his early short stories like “Pigeon Feathers” but his descriptions can be tedious.) I recommend reading Theodore Roethke’s “Journey to the Interior” for a tour de force of description. It also shows a masterful connection of the physical and the spiritual worlds, and, in fact, is what this poem centers on.

A writer cannot and should not describe everything in a character or scene. If he does, and some bad writers do, he will bore the poor reader out of his skull. So you’ve got to pick and choose what you describe with great care. Some of this is common sense and some is pure instinct.

A great poet can walk into a room and describe three things about the room and capture its physical, emotional, and spiritual character exactly. Let me present a modest example. Say you walk into a college auditorium, with chairs lined up for a lecture, row upon row, a screen is pulled down behind a podium set upon a large stage. All standard stuff. Except in one corner blood is splashed across the wall. What’s the big deal? It’s just some red liquid. But it has changed the entire spiritual and emotional quality of that room from an empty classroom where students are about to yawn through another lecture, to a room where god knows what happened.

Now the mind has begun to move from description to story. What if? What if? What if a professor had been having an affair with a young student and she had confronted him with her pregnancy and they argued and…. Or what if a student has stolen tomorrow’s test and is caught by a T.A. and there’s a rock paperweight nearby and ….

Good description inevitably engenders a good story.

So choosing wisely what you describe is the first job of a good writer.

Next time, more on the power of description: “The Demon is in the Detail, and so is a good story.”