The difficulty with coming up with a story is that you start with no frame of reference. There’s you and there’s the blank page.
The advantage of writing description is you have a definite place to start. You may use your skill and talent to augment it, but when you describe a mug, you have a pretty good idea what a mug looks like to get you started.
This is why aspiring writers will often bury themselves in long descriptions. Because it’s easier. But that’s also why it’s less impressive, no matter how beautiful the prose. And why you have to police yourself much more rigorously.
It’s also very easy to convince yourself that really getting into the minutiae of an object or a scene is a valid form of expression because you’ve seen other authors do it. Great authors. And that is true. Up to a point.
The thing about genre fiction is that if you want to learn how to write it, read some good examples and you’ll have a pretty good idea. Oh, you’ll say, that’s how that’s done.
With literary fiction it’s not so easy. It’s more like thinking you can build a clock because you know how to tell the time. Like a well constructed timepiece, good literary fiction has all the workings hidden. You can stare at the hands going round the face all you want, it won’t reveal the inner workings.
So for many readers, they feel the meaning, they sense a purpose, but all they see is the pretty prose. And that’s what they emulate. The barn and the sunset. The purple and orange. The frayed paint. Red barn in shadow. The sun sinking in orange and purple. And so on.
Cormac McCarthy does it (plus a few dead babies), so why not you?
What’s missing is purpose. Why are you describing what you’re describing? If it’s just to make sure the reader can see things clearly then you’re wasting time and words. The effect will be to slow down the pace and frustrate the reader when all the detail turns out to have not particular reason to be there. It’s not just purpose you need, it’s an interesting purpose.
Let’s say a child is in a car crash. He is thrown clear and when he comes round he sees the car mangled, smoke and flames, his mother covered in blood, her body wrapped around the steering wheel, her face caved in and death in the air.
Traumatic stuff. Well worth describing in great detail, right? No, not really. Not if that’s all it is. Yes, it gives an insight into a formative moment in this child’s life. So what?
Now imagine the same scene but the mother is still alive, but the child is so repulsed by her gruesome visage that he can’t approach her. The rest of his life he doesn’t know if he could have saved her if he had been able to overcome his fear of the half-faced monster his mother had become. Describing the scene now has a purpose.
But wait. What if I describe the scene with full on detail turned up to eleven, but the fact he carries this guilt is not mentioned? The purpose will only be revealed later in the story. Won’t the scene read just like the earlier purposeless version on the page? After all the reader only has the text in front of them to work from.
And that’s where the writer needs to use their understanding of their purpose to infuse the scene with meaning without actually stating what the meaning is. Through subtext, through imagery and focus. You have to be able to excise that which does not serve the purpose of the scene, so that what’s left has the power to suggest something more than a simple backdrop.
Once you know the focus is on his horror at what his mother looks like you know where to put your description. Dents in the car and the way the smoke floats into the sky won’t help so don’t waste words on them.
And if your purpose is different you change accordingly. The same car crash could be used to express a fascination with death, broken technology, war wounds, ecological disaster, modern art, punishment from god or any number of other ideas. The point is once you know the purpose you can then attempt to execute it. How you do that and the level of subtlety you use is up to you. There's still plenty of work to do, but it will be more than fancy prose, and readers will respond to that.
Let me make it clear: long descriptions heavy on the details are fine. As long as you have a purpose for it. As long as you know what that purpose is. As long as it is not obvious and predictable.
Describing a house on fire in great detail to reflect the fear of the man trapped in the burning house is redundant. We know fire is scary. Taking time to emphasise it doesn't make the popint better, it just makes it more slowly. Describing the flames in a way that reflect his need to break chairs and tables to fuel the fire is interesting. It's not what we expect so it's worth going deeper.
Description without purpose is pointless.
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