Michaeline: Description, Part One

line-drawing of a horse in the Japanese style

A horse is a horse, of course. But how much detail do we really need to be able to see a horse? (Via Wikimedia Commons)

I am wrestling with description this week, and will probably be doing so for much of next month (and perhaps for the rest of my writing life).

Description boils down to the very simple fact that you have to get images out of your head, and transfer them into your readers’ heads. Some writers are quite particular about drawing word pictures, and they want the reader to see almost exactly what they see (a bit quixotic, if you ask me).

Others, on the other hand, concentrate on getting the images out of their own heads, purging them, if you will, by writing them. They may not care if the writer’s image and the reader’s image match exactly. They should care, however, about whether or not the reader has a consistent flow of images throughout the book.

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen doesn’t indulge in description very much. The most scenery we get are vague images of rocks and trees and ponds. And as for people – they are handsome, or even quite handsome, or plain. I think the closest thing we get to actual image in a person is when the new heiress Mary King is described as freckled.

As a matter of fact, at first the Bennet sisters must rely on the Lucases’ descriptions of Mr. Bingley. They are not allowed to sit with him when he calls; the only details they glean are that he wears a blue coat and rides a black horse.

I love what this little passage says about Austen’s attitude toward description: the most vivid, detailed description in the book is about how useless those little details are in determining what really matters.

Austen isn’t writing about the outsides of a character, but rather the insides – what they do, think and feel.

The lack of concrete description also lets the reader do the heavy lifting in the imagination department. And any continuity problems are the reader’s – if Eliza Bennet’s hair was black in the first chapter and blonde in the 20th, that is the reader’s fault, not Austen’s fault.

It’s funny, though, how an off-hand phrase like “little freckled thing” can bring up a whole image in my mind. I envision a classmate’s big sister in an high-waisted Empire dress. I am certain that’s not exactly what Austen had in mind, but this image is as real to me as Austen’s image of the character was to her.

Next week (or maybe the next), I’d like to tackle other side of the argument, and talk about the joys of details and description. But I’m drawing a blank. Who is your favorite author for painting word pictures?

7 thoughts on “Michaeline: Description, Part One

  1. I don’t generally care for writers who paint lots of word pictures – for me, they get in the way of the story (thinking of Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series, which was loaded with information about the life of our prehistoric ancestors). I’d rather receive a few pointers and fill in the blanks myself.

    I’m trying to pay more attention though, because I regularly receive contest feedback that (some) readers would like more detail than I provide – though btw they don’t want a slower pace, and I usually find the two things go hand in hand. I check every scene to make sure that at least the reader knows where and when it takes place, and to give enough detail to allow the reader to picture it and add in details if they wish.

    • It’s really hard to find that balance between enough description and slow pace. When I enjoy description, though, it usually is a nice interlude — green-lit grottos under the sea, or rich tapestries and a sofa with lots of cushions like a fantasy harem. There are some descriptions which have stuck in my mind for years, and I’m going to write a little bit about those later.

      One thing, though — even though Jane Austen’s lack of specific description gives me great hope, I never got into Pride and Prejudice until I saw the BBC version, which gave me a lot of details that I craved. Bodies in motion, looks that lingered, OMG the clothes and furnishings . . . . I really don’t know if it was age (I first read P&P in high school and said “meh, OK.”), or the details.

      A lot of readers want “purple prose” I think. They enjoy knowing where they are and what they are seeing. I can see that, too. (Although, I don’t like plowing through a lot of it.)

  2. We tend to think of 19th-century books being laden with detail, but that’s a great observation about Austen. Maybe she was ahead of her time, based on this passage from Donald Maass’s recent craft book, Writing the 21st Century Novel.

    “Here’s a writing craft tool that you can remove from your toolbox and throw away: description. It’s the stuff that most readers skim. Even when deftly done using the five senses, it’s a lead weight. It isn’t needed anymore. In the jet-packed 21st century, it’s a horse carriage.” (Maass, Donald, 2012, F+W Media, Inc, p. 159-160 Kindle Edition.)

    He goes onto explain that he doesn’t mean all description, but encourages writers to pick the ‘high-impact details’, and to keep it to what the POV character would, in fact, notice. One of the reasons is to keep up the pacing, but another, just as importantly, is to keep that feeling of seeing through the character’s eyes, which we try to do in 1st- and 3rd-person close POV. I have to admit, the older I get, the more I tend to skim the details and go digging for the story, both in reading and writing. But this is one of those YMMV issues, and as a writer, you have to figure out where to draw your own line.

    • Austen was very much concerned with the inner life in P&P. Her letters talk about hats and dresses and things, so I am sure they were important in her daily life, but I don’t think they were important to her words. The most described hat in P&P was Lydia’s ugly one that she bought for the sake of having bought something. That wasn’t just a hat — it was character development.

      Too true about YMMV — and age changes the way we read, as well as understanding certain mechanics about writing tends to change the way we read. I read MUCH more slowly these days, and if I have to skim . . . I feel like my time could be better spent reading some other book in many cases (or that I should go to bed and read when I’m feeling more refreshed).

  3. I’m not much interested in description, either, and I think the general advice to “use the five senses” (so relentlessly required in contests) is way off the mark. The opening of Michener’s “Hawaii” isn’t really description, but it sure isn’t plot, either. Billions of pages of the volcano forming and then dirt happening and then the seed floating across the ocean and whatever before anyone gets to the islands. That book would never be published today, at least as is. (Of course, bitter from rejection, he’d go ahead and self-publish, earning himself a zillion bucks.)

    • (-: My mom had to read me through that chapter. I remember it so clearly — I was washing dishes, and she was reading the first chapter of Hawaii. And she read so well, it made it fascinating — I love science anyway, and perhaps part of it was thanks to that opening in Hawaii. Pele is a super-cool goddess! I was probably too young to get the full impact of the book — I think I was in fifth or sixth grade — but I do remember the book quite fondly. After that start, I burned right through it on my own.

      If that intro was a warning that the book was going to delve into details, I think it was a right and proper one (-:. But things went much faster when our heroes were people, and the time frame was . . . less than geologic!

      Michener really knows how to make word-pictures, that’s for sure. I also read Alaska, which is pretty dire. And, that which has been read cannot be unread. I often use the phrase “better out than in” in real life now, but I always flash back to the sad inner workings of an explorer with constipation.

      Mexico, on the other hand, is on my “re-read one day” list.

  4. Pingback: Jilly: Writer, Interrupted | Eight Ladies Writing

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