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


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



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


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



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


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


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.


[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.

Constructive Technique Of Narration[c] Discovery Of Radio-activity facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail