PH: Killing Your Puppet Complex
“The sounds of our words and the cadences of our sentences must reinforce the content of our description.”
Rebecca McClanahan; Word Painting
Descriptive writing provides the details in a good story. Deciding what to describe and what to leave out is a weighty task. It isn’t a matter of building a list of details around setting, character, or object. If our character is about to make a terrible decision, we aren’t engaged by the description of every physical movement. The character must cross the threshold of his once happy life to enter the eroding landscape of his own devices. Making scene work means telegraphing enough details to let the reader know the story has shifted into a point of no return. Therefore, description has to dive into the story stream with the same force as its narration partner, reinforcing the scene and its meaningful content. Layering description between the folds of narration and exposition has to avoid the mechanical. The writer must resist taking on the role of a puppeteer dragging character all over setting, pasting in details, and bringing pace to a standstill.
Descriptive writing can be the finish on scene, but it is not the scene. Powerful description can cause a room to take on an unnatural pulse or use a herd of wildebeest in the Serengeti to create paranoia. Impressions are enhanced, as Aristotle said, “using expressions that represent things as in a state of activity.” Strong descriptive passages engage the emotions and intellect, settling into the human psyche.
Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair opens using subtle description: “. . . but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me?” The rain represents a sort of god-like torrent, seeming to never let up throughout the course of the story, as God’s presence in the life of the woman hovers doggedly over her life. Never does Greene’s description get bogged down in weather clichés, but in a subtle manner, perfectly laid imagery serves the story with emotion and power. Graham uses a stormy tone to unify the theme. As Stanley Kunitz says, description used in this manner can unify the “constellation of images” that appears and reappears in a literary work, suggesting the idea or feeling that lives beneath the story line.
Description can serve many functions, from helping to shape a narrative line to aiding in grounding the story in the character’s life and plight. It can slow down or speed up pace and serve as the transition between scenes. It can lend metaphorical life to lifeless objects. But all description must be judged for what it lends to the larger story. A beautiful piece of description can be evocative and beautiful yet might ruin the story’s suspense. If it doesn’t provide a piece of the larger story, removing it will speed pace.
Good descriptive prose does not serve the paper on which it is written, but the reader, engaging the senses and causing story to flutter to life in the reader’s mind. That is when the imagination is enlarged and story is allowed to linger.
Patricia Hickman is the author of The Millwood Hollow series; Warner Faith. http://www.patriciahickman.com/