In many ways the written word is the most visual way to tell a story. The images you can create inside a person’s head can be the most arresting and memorable they’ll ever experience. In high definition and fully 3D without the need for glasses.
For many aspiring writers, the use of language to create pictures you can literally see, people whose faces are in your memory even though they don’t exist, places that are real as any place that you’ve actually been, is what being a writer is all about.
That’s why they spend so much time trying to paint a picture with their words. But a lot of the time it doesn’t work. It feels stolid and longwinded, and a chore to read. Why?
I’m not one of those people who believe any kind of detailed description is bad or old fashioned. The idea that Victorian writers were allowed to be florid and sweeping but times have changed, is not one I believe. There are plenty of modern writers who can create a stunning vista inside your head by using lots and lots of words.
However, if I asked most aspiring writers to sit in front of tree and to write a description of the tree in their notebook, even though what I might get would probably be immediately recognisable—maybe with evocative adjectives that allowed me to sense the tree, its sounds and smells and the way the sunlight etc. etc.—what I would also probably get is a long, boring description of a tree.
But there are many times you will read a passage in a story that is the metaphorical equivalent of that tree. And yet it is engrossing and interesting and seems to be a vital part of the story . But technically speaking, it’s still just a description of a tree.
What’s easy to miss is that in those cases of great writing, the writer isn’t describing what it first appears they’re describing.
He rode easily, relaxed in the saddle, leaning his weight lazily into the stirrups. Yet even in this easiness was a suggestion of tension. It was the easiness of a coiled spring, of a trap set.
The above is the introduction of the titular character from a Western called Shane by Jack Schaefer.
It comes at the end a page of description of what he looks like. A boy is watching a man on a horse approaching. We get a detailed description of his clothing (His shirt was finespun linen, rich brown in colour), his hat, his face, his eyes.
It’s all pretty simple and exhaustive, but within this bland list there is something else.
He was not much above medium height, almost slight in build. He would have looked frail alongside father’s square solid bulk.
There are little observational details sprinkled throughout. The boy compares this stranger to his father, a comparison the story is built on; the hard-working farmer and the tired gunslinger. His father is the more solid man, but Shane is something else under the surface.
So why not just keep the more pertinent, meaningful bits and lose the rest? Who cares how dusty this guy’s boots are?
Many writers do just that. They find a way to capture a character or a setting in a single line. Fitzgerald describes Jay Gatsby as: His tanned skin was drawn attractively tight on his face and his short hair looked as though it were trimmed every day.
That little detail about his hair tells you volumes.
Asimov describes the planet Trantor as “the densest and richest clot of humanity” in the galaxy. The choice of the word ‘clot’ is enough to give you a feeling of something congealed and unwieldy.
But writing that way should be a choice. If Schaefer had only included the more revelatory lines, it would have been very obvious what was going to happen. If he just made you sit through lines and lines of description before getting to the point, it would send you to sleep.
Combining the vivid imagery and the sense of more than meets the eye—is what pulls the reader in. It’s the words that put the image in your head, it’s the purpose behind the image that makes it stick there.
Going back to our tree, if I told you three men had been hanged from that large bough. In fact, if you look closely you can still see the rope marks. Now describe the tree...
I’m not saying you will suddenly have a whole new vocabulary at your disposal. The words may be very much the same. But now you’re not trying to tell me what a tree looks like. I know what a tree is. Now you have something more to tell me.
Similarly you don’t really need to tell me what a person looks like or what a town looks like, not beyond very basic details. But that isn’t why you’re describing them. Once you figure out what it is you really have to tell me, you will find the words not only flow easier, they mean much, much more.
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