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?