NOTES ON DESCRIPTION
Be someone on whom nothing is lost. Henry
The first thing to remember when considering description is this:
DESCRIPTION IS NOT WALLPAPER.
"Show it; don't tell it!" This is one of the shibboleths of modern
writing. You hear it in almost every class, everywhere. And everybody
nods his or her head as if to say of course, what do you take me for?
And then almost everybody goes on about his or her quest to write the great
American-Whatever, heedless of the admonition. Indeed, "show it, don't
tell it" has become so shopworn that people frequently neglect to contemplate
what it means in the first place.
Why all the fuss about description?
Let's start with the good old days. In the good old days, a writer could
open with the proclamation: "Abigail was a very gullible young woman," and
then go on to make other sweeping conclusory proclamations about Abigail and
about everybody else in his novel, and never once did he have to suffer the
challenge of "Hey wait a minute, show it don't tell it!" Why?
Because readers were gullible back then. Not like now. Innocent.
Trusting. Un-cynical. They were willing to accept the writer's
proclamations because of entire webs of interwoven shared values that none
would deign to challenge. Writer and readers had been to the same schools,
had become versed in the same classics, believed in the same God (or gods),
even if it was not the God Who could only be found within the walls of the
And well up the pecking order the old value-webs established was the author
in all his majesty, entitled by his stature to hold forth and proclaim things
to be so, solely on the strength of his authority! It was so much easier
to nod one's head to the proclamations of someone from within that web.
Now, however, there are no more webs from which to suspend an authorial author
so that she can hold forth high above the heads of her readers. We don't
have a common God. Life has become far more apparently complex, and
that has taken away a lot of the possibility of sharing moral and political
values. No past is shared. No background is common.
Everbody seems to come from someplace else.
All we have that we really have by way of common values is the quasi-scientific
assumption we still can trust observable fact. What we see for ourselves in
the visual media is what we get. And because the only specialty that
seems to hold a high status since the industrial revolution and the age of
enlightenment is the scientist, the observation of measurable data seems
to be the only ritual to which our culture genuflects.
This is also an era in which verbal fiats are no longer trusted. We
have all been led astray by words, and we are reluctant to allow it to happen
again. For reasons too numerous to count, starting perhaps with our
inability to trust the words that tried to soften the horrid reality of modern
warfare in the First World War, and going on to the Hitler propaganda and
proclamations of the Second, not to mention the Cold War (on both sides, it
turns out) and then to Watergate and Iran Contra and the "double-speak" that
has come to dominate modern bureaucracy. Add to all of this car salesmen
and television advertising, and it is not surprising we have been trained
not to trust anything anybody tells us anymore.
As a result, a writer can no longer get away with simple proclamations.
It is the difference between my next door neighbor Sam, whom I grew up with
from the time we were little kids telling me that Abigail is very gullible,
and a refugee-Bedouin who just today drifted into town telling me the same
thing. The result is that nobody is willing to take anybody's
word for anything. Certainly not anybody's proclamation. The reaction
becomes, 'Just who in Hell do you think you are, coming in here and saying
a thing like that?' And even when the 'Bedouin' writer reminds us to
'wait a minute, it's my character, I made her up, and if I say that she's
gullible then she's gullible, so why not leave me alone and let me tell my
story the way I want to tell it?' that is still not enough. Because
now, everyone has become a Bedouin to everyone else. Even Sam next
door seems not to be trusted so much as he would have been back during the
golden age of good neighbors. We've been programmed and conditioned
not to accept anybody's word for anything.
We are a culture dominated by visual media. We all see it on television,
and we are lulled into uncritical acceptance of what we think we see.
Because of this, we still believe in the power and faculty of observation,
even though when it is analyzed, this trait is perhaps the most faulty of
all. It has the advantage of being grounded in external, observable
reality, something which our readers, even in their cynicism are convinced
the writer cannot manipulate, because it is based on external phenomena.
And, among other things, external facts are capable of being observed independently
and shared by readers, tested against their own realities, but also, compared
against the writer's capacity to perceive an external fact and recount an
Of course this all involves the height of fiction, since there really need
not be any external reality in a writer's fiction, and a writer is capable,
by manipulating the external facts, to make her own skewed perceptions and
judgments appear as inescapable physical conclusions. But this is the
arena in which we are forced to function.
This isn't to say there wouldn't otherwise be a need to emphasize physical
description of observable fact as a literary device. Good description
is a valuable literary tool, and it is an essential component of the best
of classics. It is only to point out that to a large extent, now there
is hardly any choice in the matter.
Description as Wallpaper
The very idea of "description" as part of a story often conjures up those
pages of a lengthy novel which readers choose to "skim". Nothing happens
as the writer tours the room--or the pantry in many modern novels--and virtually
lists the contents.
In novels of the rich and self-indulgent, the list is designer-named items.
In minimalist fiction, the list is of common things. Here's Ann Beattie's
Chilly Scenes of Winter kitchen cabinet list:
He picks up a package of dried beans, drops them back on the shelf.
There is a large bottle of vanilla, a package of dried beans, a box of Tuna
Helper, no tuna, a can of baby clams, two cans of alphabet soup, a canister
with four Hydrox cookies (what happened to them? They used to be so
good. Sugar. No doubt they're leaving out sugar), a package of
Cheese Nabs, and a can of grapefruit juice. There is also a package
of manicotti shells. They will have to go out for dinner.
To some extent, the minimalists and other modernists choose to spoof the
classics, taking such devices as description and twisting them into tedious
absurdities, simply to demonstrate that the old ways are dead. However,
contrary to first impressions, even such tediousness can serve a narrative
purpose. It helps to find common ground, to set us at common purposes
with the character whose cupboard it is. And when we discover that the
cupboard contains nothing more than what we probably can find in our own
cupboards on a good day, then we can relax and treat this experience not
so much a lapse into literature as a friendship with the characters, in which
the authorial force behind their creation is not an obstacle, since it is
Description off the wall, off the page
We think effective description can and should go even farther. Much
farther. It is the best opportunity for the writer to paint visual pictures
with a simple palette of words: the poet's palette. Visual pictures
that can soar off the page and hover there suspended by the power of the
writer's style, so that when the reader takes them in, they float directly
into her right brain. Sometimes they don't make logical sense at all,
the way an inventory of a cupboard would make. They only dazzle the
aesthetic sense in her, triggering her awe response, and her jaw goes slack
at the magnificence.
Of course this is easier said than done, but it is what we strive for.
Consider Toni Morrison, writing in her novel, Jazz:
Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In
the top half I see looking faces and it's not easy to tell which are people,
which the work of stonemasons. below is shadow where any blase thing
takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women.
A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep.
It's the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it. When
I look over strips of green grass lining the river, at church steeples and
into the cream-and-copper halls of apartment buildings, I'm strong.
Alone, yes, but top-notch and indestructable -- like the City in 1926 when
all the wars are over and there will never be another one. . .
. . . in the space between two buildings, a girl talks earnestly
to a man in a straw hat. He touches her lip to remove a bit of something
there. Suddenly she is quiet. He tilts her chin up. They
stand there. Her grip on her purse slackens and her neck makes a nice
curve. The man puts his hand on the stone wall above her head.
By the way his jaw moves and the turn of his head I know he has a golden tongue.
The sun sneaks into the alley behind them. It makes a pretty picture
on its way down.
(From Jazz, Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)
The bread-and-butter functions of description
Description performs one or more of several functions. It sets the
scene. It advances the story, the action. It gives us essential
data by which to judge what happens. It advances the reader's understanding
of the character. It helps to delineate the people you find
in a scene, to understand them better.
As Eudora Welty has said "Feelings are bound up in places...location is the
crossroads of circumstances, the proving ground of 'What happened? Who's
here? Who's coming?'" Setting is important, partly because of our culture's
cinema-dominance. We expect to sit down in a theater and be taken into
the milieu in the early establishing shots, and then shown other physical
cues to introduce new scenes as the setting changes. Since the times
of classical literature, readers have expected to be transported to the location
where the action of fiction is happening; this to make the reader belong
to the writer and to enable the reader to escape his/her world for the writer's.
But the experience of the cinema makes the device that much more imperative
to modern readers. Try to visualize each scene as if it were a scene
in a movie, and set it forth on the page as if you were screening it.
If we want to know someone in modern times, we have to study their CHOICES.
If they choose to have Hostess Twinkies in their pantry, they are one kind
of person, and if they choose sprouts and bottled water, yet another.
If they watch the Simpsons or McNeill/Lehrer, if they drive a Mercedes or
a Ford Pick-Up truck, if they carry their valuables in a Gucci bag or a brown
paper bag, we know something more about them.
Calibrating the Writer.
Calibration -- defined as using standard points to check the accuracy of
a measuring device (in this case, the writer's accuracy in recording reality
for a reader) -- provides the reader with standard assessment tools to determine
whether the narrator is a giver of truth, whether the writer can be trusted,
and to discover whether the writer and the reader see things the same way.
Utilizing description to provide a bond, the reader can then calibrate how
closely to the 'covenant of the familiar' the writer approaches.
Showing, not telling: Adjectives and Adverbs
What a writer should look for is the salient, telling details, those one
or two observations which fix the character in the reader's mind's eye.
One of our students wrote a story contrasting a pretentious, self-absorbed
city slicker and a homeless waif at a train station. The details she
chose to give us as picture of the former were as follows:
Then the beast (the train) managed to cough up a lone woman. Dressed
in a tightly tailored purple suit, she carefully picked her way down the steel
steps, trying not to get her shoe caught in the holes. Her periwinkle
hat shifted to one side as she heaved her Gucci luggage down to the waiting
The writer never used the adjectives we used to describe the woman, and
yet the picture is clear. When she acts obnoxiously to the conductor
and to the waif, we almost expect it, are ready to believe it.
Descriptions of mannerisms, too, are important. Not just the twitch
to distinguish Tweedle Dee from Tweedle Dum, but the fact that he is always
patting down his hair, or playing with the change in his pocket (or Captain
Queeg's steel ball bearings), the fact she idly strokes her arm as she sits
alone, the fact she crosses her ankle over her knee instead of the lady-like
alternative, all these descriptions say so much. Without telling it
specifically or directly.
In description, we have no reason to believe the simple adjective, no way
of truly understanding the potential it provides, unless the writer goes all
the way and shows us. A character can be called simply "gullible," but
that does not work anymore because of the erosion of authorial authority.
But if we learn the character is a devoted reader of The National Enquirer
and is certain she saw Elvis come out of the 7-11 last week as she was going
in, then we have something. We calibrate this description
with what we understand about people who spot Elvis and we agree with the
writer about this character. If the character then does something else
foolish, like falling for a scam, the reader grants the writer that possibility,
given what the reader already knows about the character.
Description without resorting to conventional adjectives which simply label
the object being described, can be inspired and evocative. Two sterling
Anton Chekhov, describing an eerie moonlit night:
On the mill-dam a sliver of broken bottle flashed like a small, bright
star, and there rolled by...the black shadow of a dog, or a wolf.
Rainer Maria Rilke, on Cezanne's paintings:
How humble all the objects are in his paintings. The apples are
all cooking apples. And the wine bottles belong in old round sagging
Rilke could have said Cezanne chooses to paint cheap wines. Instead,
he describes the wines by the place in which they'd be found, and gives us
a memorable picture, a sensation which goes along with the description.
There's cheap wine and then there's wine that's carried by sad old European
derelicts. Suddenly, Cezanne's paintings are richer, as well.
Basically, as you've probably noticed, adjectives are the pests that have
to be eradicated in order for narrative powers to start working. Not
that all adjectives have to go always, but for purposes of emphasizing the
theme of: Show it; don't tell it, you should do away with as many of the ones
that summon our lapsed authorial authority. (The "adjectivicide" exercise
The same thing goes for adverbs. By and large the rule of the day
is: get rid of them. For the same reason. They reflect an unearned
authority in the writer. "She ran quickly down the street." By whose
measure did she run quickly? The writer's, that's who, and we've already
agreed we are not about to believe anything the writer says unless she relates
it to something which is observable in the reader's minds eye, from the reality
the writer has created. Thus, Her dash down the street outpaced even
the bus that was making its way from stop to stop in traffic that had not
yet begun to thicken with the evening rush. Or, She was running down
the street, and even little Charlie, who had just won the 50 yard dash at
the P.S. 158 track meet, soon fell far behind and gave up the pursuit.
Forcing yourself away from the easy adverb (as well as the easy adjective)
also serves to get you thinking visually and situationally, the way a writer
has to think to make fiction really work. And while it may be overdoing
it to say you should wean yourself of all adverbs, for the short run, the
emphasis works to break old habits and to encourage your adaptation to this
effective mode of creative visualization.
The clues to getting around the blind corners of a story or a character
can often be found in physical details that are lying all about. Even
when the story is mental, the clues are often physical ones, or start out
that way and lead to places unthought of.
As we have said about all the techniques, they are not just devices for the
reader's benefit. They assist the writer in the act of creation.
In a sense, the spirit required for effective description is the spirit of
the visual artist. Seeing a detail in a scene or a character, imagining
it as a part of the physical setting, as a center of force that contributes
to the power of the tale, provides the writer with at least some of the force
required to tell the story well. It all goes frigid when the writer
merely follows the form. 'Let's see, now, what shall I put on the night
table? I've got to put something there.' Wrong attitude.
There has to be something on the night table, and from this the writer is
free to draw from memory, finding an object from her own past that provokes
a strong reaction: a frayed cord dangling from the radio and dangerous, a
fading photograph of a dead soldier, something that calls out to the writer
to get on with the story. So that when the writer sees it and writes
it, it is the source of greater power, not just for the reader, but for the
act of creation. Otherwise, the detail simply doesn't matter to
the act of creation.
What thinking about description should do for the writer to whom this does
not come naturally, is trigger a visual focus. By doing the exercises
at the end of the chapter, the writer should be learning to think about how
physical details impact the recorded event. In the Laser Exercise, for
example, you study one of your scene photographs for a simple detail, a key
detail that calls out from the photograph, and then begin writing by describing
that detail until it spins out into a full blown narrative that embraces
the entire photograph. When you discover for yourself how this happens,
you will have discovered the profound importance of description to the energy
of creation, if you haven't discovered it already. From the exercises
a greater awareness comes. This is not to say that each detail
must have as great an impact upon the writer as one of the significant personal
memory objects we used in the early warming-up exercises (See chapter on
memory). But that is the archetype.
The Activity-Description Technique
This technique forces description into action and provides creative momentum
when static description might be sagging or bogging the writer down.
It is possible to describe something statically, photographically, by telling
us how it looks as it sits on the shelf: It was a tarnished ball, just
smaller than a volley ball and covered with gouges, scuffs and scratches.
Perhaps it once had been a rich and shiny blue, bluer than the ocean on a
sunny day. Now, even if somebody took the time to dust off the years
of grime, the ball would only succeed in mustering up a dullish sort of aged
This might be an acceptable description, but it doesn't get the writer,
or the reader anywhere. The ball is still just the ball, and it still
sits on the shelf gathering dust in the garage, and if the story is to proceed
anywhere, it will have to hitch a ride on some other propulsion device.
If we put the object into action as we create it, it just might take us
somewhere a story might be lurking. What we want to do with this technique
is to make the physical object the actual vehicle that takes us into the
fictive dream. Take the same ball and describe it by getting it to
tell us where it's been: Small enough to be grasped in the hands of tiny
children, the ball had been bounced a thousand times between a brother and
his slightly older sister, again and again and again until the brother got
the hang of clasping it between his fat palms. It had been trapped
at least a hundred of those times in the clench of the raspberry brambles
in back of the garage when the ball had bounded past the boy, and he had
to bear his sister's taunting reproofs: 'No, no no! Not that way!
You have to watch for it to bounce. You can't close your eyes!
Don't you know anything?' The ball had been a rich deep blue once,
that Christmas he'd found it, tied with a bow at the base of the tree beside
his new sled, and so shiny he'd first thought it must be a marble left by
a giant. The brambles had taken away that gloss right away, not to
mention the skin of his wrists as he reached to retrieve it.
Now the description has taken us into the episode, and you know what the
ball is like -- not to mention the people who tossed it back and forth --
from watching it in action. The goal is to describe an object (or a
scene or a person) by allowing it to carry you back into an episode.
And if all your sails are set just right to pick up a prevailing breeze, you
may find yourself gliding into an entire story. This works best if
the object isn't associated with an actual event, so that you don't make reasoned,
logical connections to real history (as would happen in the thought progression:
'This is the dress I wore to my junior prom in high school. I remember,
that was the night my date slipped and toppled into the punch bowl.'
etc.) It's best if you don't really know the story before you begin,
if it is not a historical analog but rather an entirely new tale that suggests
itself to you whole from contemplating the object itself.
Virginia Woolf mastered the activity-description technique. A detail
for her could easily take her soaring into digressions not only to the past,
but to the future, as in her description of the dilapidating abandoned house
in the middle section (Time Passes) of To the Lighthouse:
For now had come that moment, that hesitation when dawn trembles and
night pauses, when if a feather alight in the scale it will be weighed down.
One feather, and the house, sinking, falling, would have turned and pitched
downwards to the depths of darkness. In the ruined room, picnickers
woiuld have lit their kettles; lovers sought shelter there, lying on the bare
boards; and the shepherd stored his dinner on the bricks, and the tramp slept
with his coat round him to ward off the cold. Then the roof would have
fallen; briars and hemlocks would have blotted out path, step, and window;
would have grown, unequally but lustily over the mount, until some trespasser,
losing his way, could have told only by a red-hot poker among the nettles,
or a scrap of china in the hemlock, that here once some one had lived; there
had been a house.
One of the exercises will help you to work with the activity-description
technique on your own.
All description need not soar into poetry. But some should.
A writer is entitled to soar. Every detail need not trigger deep sources
of creative energy in the writer. Some should, because it advances the
creative dream. Other description simply fulfills its function as a
literary device to bind the reader to the writer, to the characters, and
to the episode. In short, description should accomplish at least some of
1] bind the reader to the virtual reality the writer chooses, and thereby
block the part of the reader's reality he/she may be trying to escape by reading;
2] give the reader enough grounding in fact data so that the reader can
a] finding his/her own creative way independent of actual compelling direction
by the writer;
b] calibrating the writer's own take on reality, thereby establishing the
c] comprehending the writer's theme;
d] understanding (and sometimes bonding with) the characters;
e] entering the episode.
3] give the writer his/her own energy for creating,
a] by using description that by its very detail, gives plot direction
b] by using description that pushes the writer's own personal buttons