NOTES ON DESCRIPTION

    Be someone on whom nothing is lost.  Henry James

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 Anglican church. 

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 event.

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 hardly noticed.

    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. . .

And,

 . . .  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.

Setting

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.


Character.
 
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 conductor.

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 examples follow:

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 coat pockets.

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 illustrates this)

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.

    Writer Impact

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 grey.

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.

 
    Summary

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 the following:

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 begin:
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 writer's trustworthiness;
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