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Description





Interest--Secondary Function of Description--Distribution--
Story of Atmosphere--Effectiveness of Distributed Description
--Description of Persons--Example--Analysis--Accuracy--
Mechanical Limitations of Story--Use of All Senses--
Description of Setting--Two Objects--To Clarify Course of
Events--To Create Illusion of Reality--Use of All Senses
Order of Details--Contrast.


All writing is descriptive, in a sense; narration, for instance, is
simply the picturing of shifting physical conditions in a state of
fluxation. But description is usually taken to mean the picturing of
physical conditions more or less static. The term is used so here, for
the technique of describing persons, scenes, and objects generally
requires treatment separate from the description or narration of bare
events. In describing a happening of his story, and in describing one of
the characters, the writer's general object is the same, to show the
person or event with the vivacity of life, but the conditions to which
the writer is subject are somewhat different in each case. To mention
but one difference, normally much more space is available for pure
narration than for pure description. The events of a story are the
story; its people and its setting are drawn only to give the fiction the
highest attainable degree of verisimilitude. And, since the space
available for description in the normal story is somewhat limited, the
writer is under stringent necessity to make each word tell. In narrating
an event, the matter has an interest of its own for a reader apart from
the manner of telling, but in describing a person, scene, or object, the
word is all in all. If the picture is not effective, nothing is
achieved.

In coming to the writing of a descriptive passage, the writer should
realize its secondary function in the story. Except in the case of the
story of atmosphere, and perhaps of the story of character, a reader's
interest will focus in the progression of happenings as such, and the
sole object of strictly descriptive matter is to give maximum
concreteness to the events by depicting their setting and
individualizing the persons concerned. What happens is the first
consideration, not where it happens nor whom it affects. Most stories
might be told without a single word of strict description, and no such
word should be given place in any story unless it will forward the
fiction to a higher degree of verisimilitude.

It follows that descriptive matter should not be written pages at a
time. Its function is to lend body and color to the whole course of
events, therefore descriptive touches should be inserted throughout the
whole course of a story. To give an itemized description of a character
at the start, or to picture the whole countryside through which the
story is to move, is a poor, because ineffective, way to write. Not only
will the reader be repelled by great spaces of description, but he will
forget the attempted picture with speed. The thing to do is to insert a
vivid word here and there where it will do the most good as the story
progresses. Description is for the story, not to give the writer a
chance to heap words.

Numerous successful authors have indulged in lengthy descriptions, but
the worth of their books does not result from the indulgence. Hugo's
description of mediaeval Paris in "Notre Dame" is an example so extreme
as almost not to be in point, but most of the elder generation of
writers hampered the march of their stories by describing at inordinate
length. No matter what the eminence of those who have written so, it is
a technical fault, for it tends to render the story stiff and mechanical
and unnatural. Lengthy description is not only inimical to a reader's
interest; it is perfectly useless in a fictional sense. The sole
function of description is to give body and reality to the story, and
that function cannot be performed unless the descriptive quality runs
through the whole, and the descriptive matter is not gathered into
stagnant pools of words.

Much of the effect of the story of atmosphere may depend upon its
descriptive matter, which may constitute a great part of the whole text.
The fact does not invalidate the general proposition. In discussing the
various aspects of technique, such as this matter of description, the
initial assumption is that only the technique of the normal story will
be stated. The normal story is the story of complication of incident,
where interest centers in the course of events rather than in the people
or the setting. Variants from it, the story emphasizing character and
the story stressing atmosphere, by their very difference call for a
different handling of elements.

Aside from the fact that a single lengthy description of a person
usually will have less effect on a reader than the same amount of
descriptive matter deftly interpolated throughout the whole story, or
the fact that recurrent descriptive touches as to setting will do more
to give body to the fiction than a single lengthy description, the
writer should consider the mere rhetorical difficulty of descriptive
writing. He must stand or fall by the picture he creates. In narrating,
he has another resource than perfection in expression, for the bare
event, apart from the way it is told, will interest a reader. But a
picture will not interest unless it is a picture. Rhetorical skill is
the sole determinant between absolute success and flat failure in
describing. And it is hard enough to find one or two telling descriptive
phrases without contracting with the reader to supply several pages of
them. Not only is a long descriptive passage of questionable value in
the normal story, even when well done, but very few can write a long
descriptive passage well. The matter of emphasis here comes up again for
consideration. Vividness is not absolute, but relative. One vivid phrase
will seem vivid to a reader, but fifty or a hundred together will not.
The reader will become accustomed to the higher level of expression, and
the whole will fail of its object.

In the course of a story the writer will have occasion to describe
persons and--roughly--things. Descriptive writing is descriptive
writing, but the matters for consideration in describing a man or woman
and a countryside are somewhat different, and will be taken up
separately.


DESCRIPTION OF PERSONS

As I have stated in another place, the writer cannot gain much in
capacity to express through the objective study of examples. He can only
practice the art, seriously and intelligently. But Stevenson's brief
story of an episode in the life of Master Francois Villon of Paris,
poet, master of arts, and house-breaker, "A Lodging for the Night," so
perfectly describes the persons involved that it calls for quotation.
The object is not to display perfect use of epithet, rather to
demonstrate the entire adequacy of brief and pungent description.
Villon, after a short introduction, is discovered in a small house with
"some of the thievish crew with whom he consorted."

"A great pile of living embers diffused a strong and ruddy glow from the
arched chimney. Before this straddled Dom Nicholas, the Picardy monk,
with his skirts tucked up and his fat legs bared to the comfortable
warmth. His dilated shadow cut the room in half; and the firelight only
escaped on either side of his broad person, and in a little pool between
his outspread feet. His face had the beery, bruised appearance of the
continual drinker's; it was covered with a network of congested veins,
purple in ordinary circumstances, but now pale violet, for even with his
back to the fire the cold pinched him on the other side. His cowl had
half fallen back, and made a strange excrescence on either side of his
bull neck. So he straddled, grumbling, and cut the room in half with the
shadow of his portly frame.

"On the right, Villon and Guy Tabary were huddled together over a scrap
of parchment; Villon making a ballade which he was to call the 'Ballade
of Roast Fish,' and Tabary spluttering admiration at his shoulder. The
poet was a rag of a man, dark, little, and lean, with hollow cheeks and
thin black locks. He carried his four-and-twenty years with feverish
animation. Greed had made folds about his eyes, evil smiles had puckered
his mouth. The wolf and pig struggled together in his face. It was an
eloquent, sharp, ugly, earthly countenance. His hands were small and
prehensile, with fingers knotted like a cord; and they were continually
flickering in front of him in violent and excessive pantomime. As for
Tabary, a broad, complacent, admiring imbecility breathed from his
squash nose and slobbering lips; he had become a thief, just as he
might have become the most decent of burgesses, by the imperious chance
that rules the lives of human geese and human donkeys.

"At the monk's other hand, Montigny and Thevenin Pensete played a game
of chance. About the first there clung some flavor of good birth and
training, as about a fallen angel; something long, lithe, and courtly in
the person; something aquiline and darkling in the face. Thevenin, poor
soul, was in great feather; he had done a good stroke of knavery that
afternoon in the Faubourg St. Jacques, and all night he had been gaining
from Montigny. A flat smile illuminated his face; his bald head shone
rosily in a garland of red curls; his little protuberant stomach shook
with silent chucklings as he swept in his gains."

The first thing to note about this fine descriptive fragment is that the
persons are definitely placed in the room. The monk before the fire is
the focal point; the others are placed in groups on his right and left
hand. Two objects are achieved thereby; not only does the picture gain
in definition, but it is given a closer relation to the story, which is
partly concerned with what happens in the room. In other words,
Stevenson describes his characters in relation to the story, and does
not merely describe each one as he has occasion to name him, in
isolation, and merely to give a reader a photograph with the name. Each
is described in relation to the story and as he comes up in it.

The second thing to note is the extreme brevity and yet the complete
adequacy of the description of each person. There is no itemizing of
physical details; Stevenson has visualized not so much each man as the
most striking characteristic of each man, and has used all resources of
language to precipitate that characteristic in words. The result is
impressive. A reader gains a clear and definite impression of the
individual personality of each character, his spiritual nature as well
as his physical aspect. The definition of the impression in each case
results from the author's having described nothing possessed by any two
in common. He has shown the unique quality of each person, which is all
that is necessary.

This point of the technique of describing persons is nine-tenths of the
whole technique. The fiction writer's proper aim is not so much to build
up a physical picture of a character by itemizing the details of hair,
complexion, stature, and so forth, as it is to reproduce the person's
unique quality as an individual human being. Whether the character is an
individual depends on the writer's creative genius, but whether he seems
individual depends on his actions and the way he is described. Stevenson
states Villon's salient physical characteristics, then remarks that the
wolf and pig struggled together in his face, and a reader has the man,
soul and body. The same method, though with less emphasis, is employed
in picturing the others of the group.

A fundamental philosophical truth is that all knowledge is relative; we
know things only in comparison with things previously encountered and
classified. It follows that the difference between objects or persons is
the ultimate factor that determines the character of each. The single
unique quality of any character in a story is what the author must bring
out in describing him if he is to have on paper the vivacity and
distinction of the author's mental conception. In real life a reader
meets many men and women; he does not take trouble to phrase the
individual peculiarity of each, but he is acutely conscious of it. Each
acquaintance stands for something unique and distinctive in his eyes,
though he does not and perhaps could not state the essential difference
from all others. And, in describing a person in his story, the writer
must state that person's essential difference from all others, if the
person is to have the reality of life for a reader, for the reader's
only contact with the person is through the writer's words. In life, a
reader will eliminate unconsciously from his mental representation of an
acquaintance all qualities which the latter has in common with others,
but verbal representation of a human being is shadowy enough at best,
and in a story the writer himself must eliminate his characters'
undistinctive qualities for the reader, or the persons will lack
definition and concreteness.

The third thing to note about this example of the description of persons
is a matter which it really does not illustrate, because it is perfect.
My statement is at once obscure and paradoxical, but what is meant is
that in describing a person it is possible to give so sharp a verbal
etching that the reader will believe from the word itself. It is the
descriptive aspect of narrating with such vividness that the word will
be accepted as visual evidence. As it happens, in describing Villon and
his fellows, Stevenson has found a combination of words which not only
constitutes a vivid picture but is one that a reader may realize in
imagination without loss of definition. Yet take such a touch as
Balzac's in stating that a character had a face like a glass of dirty
water. It is extremely vivid, but its vividness is somewhat superficial,
that is, if a reader dwells on it, and tries to realize the image in
thought, it will lose much of its definition. I have first-hand
knowledge of the effect on only one reader, of course, myself, but
others have confessed when questioned the same inability to realize this
particular figure without loss of definition. The important point for
the writer of fiction is that a reader will not pause to scrutinize too
closely an image verbally definite and striking; such a descriptive
touch as to a minor character will perform its office of giving the
person vivacity and reality better than a more accurate but less
heightened itemization of details. In a sense, Stevenson's passage is an
example of this matter. It happens that his description can be realized
without loss of definition. That is why it is perfect. But the same
method may be employed less justly and yet have more effect than any
mere itemization of physical details.

In picturing his chief characters the writer should not rely solely upon
mere verbal sharpness. If the story is worth while they will have
saliences that should be stated as well as exemplified in action. But
the minor characters are shadowy enough at best, and any verbal
definition that can be given them will lend concreteness to the story.
If an image is not only striking, but also subject to realization
without loss, so much the better. If an image is verbally happy, but not
intrinsically perfect, it may be better to employ it than to write with
just accuracy, but flatly. I believe that accuracy should be sacrificed
to verbal felicity in no other place than in describing a minor
character. It is an aspect of the general fictional necessity that mere
literalness be sacrificed to verisimilitude, and, in describing a minor
character, verisimilitude requires that a reader be faced by what will
seem to him to be a definite person rather than some particular definite
person. Strictly speaking, a minor character need not be individualized,
but he must be drawn with the nearest possible approach to the sharp
outlines of life. A major character must be drawn definite and unique; a
minor character need only be drawn definite, though the more individual
he is made the better. It follows that any sharp verbal image applied to
a minor character will help the story, though it is within limits
meretricious.

The three matters here discussed are the main considerations to be held
in mind in describing the persons of a story. They should be described
in relation to the story, as they are placed by their actions in the
physical setting. In describing the chief characters, the persons whose
personalities have significant relation to the course of events, the
writer should endeavor to bring out with maximum definition and
vividness the single unique quality of each person. In describing minor
characters, the chief necessity is to give each person as much as
possible of the definition and concreteness of life. Little space is
available, and the writer may be driven to the use of somewhat
meretricious figures. The perfect figure should always be sought, but,
if the writer cannot discover it, the literally inaccurate figure may be
better than flat writing. The general aim in describing persons is to
give maximum concreteness to the whole story, and seeming definition
will sometimes serve as well as actual definition.

The necessity that the persons of a story be described in relation to
it, as they are placed in the physical setting, requires the writer to
realize and regard the mechanical limitations of the story. If it is
told in the first person, and the narrating character perceives another
in the distance, a description of such other must confine itself to
matters apparent at a distance, until the persons approach one another
more nearly. The same necessity obtains where the story is told in the
third person, from the viewpoint of a character who perceives another at
a distance. Likewise, a character cannot be made to see through a house
or a mountain, or into the next room. A good deal has been written on
this matter, but from the wrong angle. The writer should not seek to
master any abstract rule, rather should he strive to visualize his
story as he writes it from the viewpoint from which he has chosen to
tell it. If he thus gets into his story--so to speak--in describing he
will unconsciously respect the mechanical limitations of the tale.
Moreover, his attention will be free for the severe task of expression,
undistracted by any eye to precepts. The way to write a story is to
picture it in imagination and then follow it with the pen. That is why
the unpracticed writer of high imaginative powers so often writes with a
strict if unconscious regard for the laws of technique.

Another matter as to the description of persons is worth noting. The
normal human being has more than the sense of sight; he can also hear,
feel, and smell; and verbal appeals to these other senses may be
effective. The timbre of a character's voice or sound of his step, the
feel of his hand when shaken, an odor about him or her, as of liquor,
tobacco, or perfume, may be stated in describing the person. Such a
descriptive touch will often prove most useful, the more so because it
gives another dimension to the person, so to speak. A very
characteristic and impressive thing about Uriah Heep is his handshake,
as Copperfield felt it. The matter will be taken up again in discussing
the technique of describing setting, where it necessarily bulks
larger.[K]


DESCRIPTION OF SETTING

The fiction writer is a dramatist in a very real sense, but he cannot
depend for verisimilitude on flesh-and-blood actors, painted scenery,
and actual properties. He must describe all these to give his narrative
verisimilitude and concreteness. The technique of describing persons has
been discussed, and the technique of describing mere objects, the
properties of the piece, as the dagger in the hand of an assassin, is
not so much a part of the technique of fiction writing as of the
technique of writing generally. It is a question of rhetoric. But the
technique of describing setting is fictional as well as rhetorical, that
is, the writer of a story must consider what he should describe as well
as how he should describe it. His task is more highly selective than the
task of describing the persons or properties of a story. They, with the
events involving them, are the story itself; the setting or environment
of a story is not, but merely a background or stage. Yet sometimes, as
in the story of atmosphere, the setting is an integral and necessary
part of the fiction. One can only say that it all depends.

The fact that the setting is sometimes an integral part of the story and
sometimes not requires the writer to set to work differently in each
case. In writing the story of atmosphere, he must regard the setting as
matter for reproduction for its own sake; in writing the normal story,
he must regard the setting as only incidental, and should not reproduce
it unless it will clarify the course of events for a reader or serve to
give the story its necessary body and verisimilitude. The story of
atmosphere requires separate treatment; here only the technique of
describing the setting or settings of the normal story will be
discussed.

As stated, in writing the normal story, the story where interest centers
in the course of events, the writer should not describe setting unless
it will clarify the course of events or lend body to the fiction in the
eyes of a reader. General descriptive writing has no other function to
perform. Realization of the truth will lead the writer to avoid writing
great wastes of description. If a particular story requires that the
physical conformation of a neighborhood be brought out, a few words will
serve better than many, which will be apt to confuse a reader, at least
to distract his attention. And when the writer describes setting to give
body to the story, scattered descriptive touches will have more effect
than a single isolated block of description. It is another aspect of the
matter touched upon in relation to the description of persons. If a
story is to have the concreteness, definition, and vivacity of life, the
descriptive quality must permeate the whole, both as to the persons and
their environment. The descriptive task cannot be performed once and for
all, either as to the persons or the setting, any more than can the
narrative task. Narration continues throughout the whole story, for it
is the story; and likewise description must accompany each item of
narration, for description is a part or quality of the whole story.
Where the course of events is rapid, their quick succession itself will
counterfeit a like phase of life, for an observer would note the events
as such rather than the setting. But where the course of events is more
leisurely, descriptive touches as to setting will be necessary to
counterfeit such a phase of life, for an observer would note not only
the happenings but the environment. A story is a reproduction of a phase
of life; a reader is its observer; and the whole must be made to stand
forth for him as a like spectacle would show in actuality.

The other necessity, to describe setting to give the story
verisimilitude and concreteness, is not so easy to state or to meet.
This sort of descriptive quality must permeate the whole story, as has
been stated, and its introduction or creation is a matter of difficulty.
The natural and best way to conquer the secret is to imagine the course
of events while standing in the shoes of the person from whose viewpoint
the story is told, then to follow them with the pen. Where the character
would see, feel, hear, or smell something, state the impression upon
him. Thus Kipling, in "Without Benefit of Clergy": "... Old Pir Khan
squatted at the head of Holden's horse, his police sabre across his
knees, pulling drowsily at a big water-pipe that croaked like a
bull-frog in a pond. Ameera's mother sat spinning in the lower veranda,
and the wooden gate was shut and barred. The music of a marriage
procession came to the roof above the gentle hum of the city, and a
string of flying-foxes crossed the face of the low moon." Kipling has
imagined his story as Holden would have lived it; not only has he seen
through Holden's eyes--he has heard with Holden's ears. In this short
passage there are three appeals to the sense of sight, and two to the
sense of hearing, and the fragment gains by stating more than visual
impressions.

The point has been noted in discussing the description of persons, but
is worth enlarging upon. The task to give body to a story is difficult
enough at best, and the writer can afford to neglect no resource. Of
the five senses whereby man grasps his surroundings, that of taste is
probably of the least use to the writer of fiction, but the senses of
sight, hearing, smell, and touch can all be utilized on occasion. A
character at sea can be stated to have seen the waves of a storm, felt
the force of the gale and the sting of driven raindrops, and tasted the
salt spray, also to have smelt the musty fo'c'sle when he went below.
Each touch will give the whole picture added reality for a reader. The
beginning writer is too apt to rely solely upon what a character might
have seen. A deserted house has a smell as characteristic as its look,
and the fragrance of violets is as impressive as their visual beauty.
Night can be told from day by its odor, and the rattle of typewriter
keys in an office is as suggestive of modern industry as a serenade is
of other days and other loves. A hero can feel his sweetheart's soft or
toil-roughened fingers as well as see her expensive silks and furs or
cheap and much worn dress. Life is a complex of many sense-perceptions,
and the more numerous and varied the fleeting impressions a character is
stated to have caught, the more concrete and real the story will be for
a reader.

Description is the usual but not the happiest term to denote the general
process of giving a story a setting and environment of its own. It
is--or should be--more than a process of picturing scenes. All pertinent
and striking sense-impressions received by the characters should be
stated, for only thus can the nearest approach to a just representation
of life be made. The writer's sole object is to give the fiction the
concreteness of life; it cannot be achieved by painting verbal pictures
for a reader, but it can be achieved by stating justly the ways in which
the totality of the environment affected the characters. Just
description of the characters will make them real men and women for a
reader, and just statement of the effects of their environment upon them
will make them real people in a real world.

The strictly executive technique of descriptive writing is not hard to
grasp, however hard it may be to find the desired word. The impression
that the character involved would receive first should be stated first,
and the less striking details should follow in the order of their
impressiveness. Thus, in describing a skating scene, the observant
character should be made to see the interweaving skaters and to hear the
peculiar whinnying ring of the skates before he sees individuals. It is
all a matter of visualizing, or, better, visualizing and living the
story in the shoes of the character from whose viewpoint it is told. The
writer who will live each story thus in imagination, and will state the
successive impressions the character would naturally receive while
moving through such a chain of events in real life, will do far better
work than one who strives to carry in his head a body of rules and
precepts and to write with observance of them. Technique cannot be
discussed without directly stating principles, but the business of
actual writing is natural, not mechanical and artificial. The writer
becomes artificial precisely when he forgets he is writing a story and
begins to daub in descriptive matter without relation to the characters
or the events. The thing to do is to get inside the skin of the
character from whose viewpoint the particular story or particular part
of the story is told, to see with his eyes, hear with his ears, smell,
taste, and feel with his nerves, and to state no impression as received
by him that the course of events would not allow him to receive. A
horse-thief fleeing from a posse will have no eye for the beauties of a
landscape. If the writer desires to show the scene for the sake of its
contrast with such an event, he must do so lightly and quickly. A reader
will be mounted with the pursued man, and his eyes will be ahead.

As to the matter of contrast between event and setting, no rules can be
stated. All that can be said is that sometimes it is a useful device.
But the main purpose of descriptive matter in the normal story is to
give it concreteness, and generally the purpose will be realized best by
stating the sense-impressions which would be received in actuality by
the characters. A story will gain much in naturalness and plausibility
thereby, for the same reason that narration in the first person or from
the viewpoint of a single character is the most natural and plausible
way to write, if the particular story permits.

One other thing may be useful to note. In describing a person, the
writer should strive to state his unique quality as an individual; in
describing a scene, also, the writer should seek to bring out its unique
quality. That quality should be sifted out and realized in imagination,
and then the writer should search diligently for the few telling words
that will precipitate it. As the story moves on, men, women, and
children, houses, ships, and electric cars, streets, deserts, and
smiling fields, will come beneath the writer's pen. And they must all be
given reality, not for their own sakes, but for the sake of the story.


FOOTNOTES:

[K] A good deal of abstract statement might be made as to the
description of persons, but the main considerations have been stated.
The whole philosophy of this phase of technique rests on the necessity
that every line of a story be given as much as possible of the
concreteness and vivacity of life. It is useless to give a long
description of a character once and for all when he first comes up in a
story. Even if a reader gains a sharp impression therefrom, he will not
carry it with him through the succeeding events involving the character.
His first impression of the person must be kept alive by repeated
descriptive touches, not so much because the person must be described
adequately as because every part of the story must have the body of
life. The distinction is fine, but real, and perhaps may be made clearer
by imagining a reader witnessing an event in which a friend is involved.
He knows his friend, as he can know no character in a story;
nevertheless he sees him uninterruptedly as the event develops. To
counterfeit the process in a story, descriptive touches as to the
persons must be interspersed with the narrative matter, though the
persons have been described already. A story should describe persons in
action and repose.





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Previous: Executive Technique Of Narration



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