Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman
Unlike scripts and screenplays, all short stories and novels depend upon their writer’s ability to write convincing descriptions. One might think of description as the equivalent of the writer’s motion picture camera. By describing what a character or narrator perceives, the writer shows his or her reader what is to be seen, just as he or she also provides whatever other sensations the reader perceives, whether sounds, smells, tastes, or tactile sensations. The world is delivered to us by our senses. Therefore, to deliver the fictional world to the reader, the writer must appeal to his or her senses. Description is visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile.
Description not only sets the scene, but it can create a mood. It can set the story’s tone. It can even suggest the story’s theme.
To develop your writing ability, study the masters of the art of descriptive writing. Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, and, of course, William Shakespeare can teach anyone a few hundred tricks of the trade, but one should study all the writers the read, especially, perhaps, those whose work--particularly whose descriptions--they most enjoy.
Nothing can replace a study of the masters of description, but a few principles for effective description can be offered:
1. Analyze the elements of perception. For example, what do we mean when we say that we “see” something? What are the elements of vision? Intensity, color, texture, distance, shape, size, contrast, density, perspective--all of these and more are elements of the visual experience.
2. Learn the principles of composition. You’re not a visual artist, you say? Oh, but you are! You may not sketch or paint or sculpt, but you create word pictures, or images, and, therefore, you should know about such elements of composition as line, shape, color, texture, direction, size, perspective, and space. You should also know how to use such principles of composition as proportion, balance, harmony, orientation, negative space, color, contrast, rhythm, geometry, lighting, repetition, perspective, viewpoint, unity, the rule of thirds, the rule of odds, the rule of space, simplification, the limiting of focus, symmetry, the centering of focus, the movement of the viewer’s eye, and others to their best advantage in achieving your narrative purpose.
3. Learn the elements and principle of mise en scene, which term refers to the placement and treatment of all the elements which are to appear before the motion picture camera, including the elements of the setting, properties (props), actors, costumes, and lighting. Although, as a writer of short stories or novels, you won’t be filming a movie, the more you know about how other artists, whether they are set decorators, directors, illustrators, painters, photographers, advertising artists, or sculptors, create, the better you will be able to develop your ability to write descriptions.
4. Use non-verbal communication to communicate; in other words, learn how to communicate through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch as well as language. There’s a great scene in the “Bad Girls” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which the slayers Buffy and Faith enter a dark alley splashed with crimson. Darkness suggests death, and crimson, blood. On a nearby construction sawhorse, an amber caution light flashes. There is no need for dialogue, music, or sound at all, and if these elements re present, I certainly don‘t remember them. However, the viewer understands immediately that something dangerous is about to happen, and, sure enough, within moments, Buffy and Faith are attacked by a band of vampires. The symbolic use of color communicates on an unconscious, almost subliminal level, thereby enhancing the effect of fear that the scene evokes. For a masterful use of non-verbal communication in a short story, read Chillers and Thrillers’ article concerning Bran Stoker’s masterpiece of terror, “Dracula’s Guest.”
5. Use metaphor, simile, symbolism, allusion, and other rhetorical devices to suggest figurative meanings and to enrich your narrative by supplying psychological, philosophical, sociological, or theological associations and themes. A story that has depth is likely to be both more rewarding and more memorable than one that does not. In fact, it is such depth that makes classic stories classics. There are reasons that Hamlet and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are likely to outlast the popular plays and novels of the moment, and one of those reasons is narrative and thematic depth.
6. Determine your scene’s purpose before you write it, and use your purpose as a means of evaluating and revising your description. Descriptive writing makes fiction immediate and emotional, but its should also help to advance your narrative purpose. Is the scene meant to evoke a powerful emotion? Is its intention to present a conflict? To introduce a new character? To provide an explanation or to supply background information? Is the purpose of the scene to plant a clue or a red herring? Is the scene meant to introduce or develop a subplot?
7. Revise, revise, revise. A functional scene isn’t good enough. It should be the most interesting and best written scene of which you are capable. Consider how rewriting the scene could improve it. What detracts from the effectiveness of the description? Would a different perspective add interest? Could the characters do something more exciting while they’re getting the point across? Again, study the masters and see how and why their scenes and descriptions are interesting and dynamic.
8. Use your web browser’s image search engine to access online images or visit actual physical locations, and then describe them. A picture of an eerie cemetery will help you to describe an eerie cemetery. Painters and illustrators paint and draw from life; the least a writer can do is to describe what he or she sees on a computer screen or, for that matter, in the real world. Charles Dickens’ short story of horror and terror, “The Signal-Man” may have been inspired by the Clayton tunnel crash of 1861; its setting resembles the actual location of the crash. Motion picture directors usually take full advantage of natural settings, too, dispatching location scouts to find appropriate and dramatically effective filming locations. Short story writers and novelists can do the same, and many have.
9. Study great descriptive writers and learn from their techniques; make sure you include poets among the writers you study. Yes, we mentioned this a couple of times already; we’re mentioning it again. That’s how important it is. Some critics and instructors advise writers to avoid the use of adjectives and adverbs in writing descriptions, but even a cursory study of great writers, whether classical or popular, shows that successful authors have used, and do use, such modifiers in their descriptions (check the examples below). While it’s probably a good idea to be judicious in selecting and employing adjectives and adverbs, there’s certainly no reason to avoid them altogether. When a critic’s or an instructor’s advice runs counter to the actual practice of established writers, go with the writers’ practice, over the critic’s or the instructor’s recommendations, every time.
10. Practice, practice, practice!
We promised you a couple of examples.
Here’s one, from Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was--but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me--upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain--upon the bleak walls--upon the vacant eye-like windows--upon a few rank sedges--and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees--with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium--the bitter lapse into every-day life--the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart--an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it--I paused to think--what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion,Here’s a second, from Bradbury’s “The Sound of Thunder”: notice, in particular, his masterful use of metaphors and similes:
that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down--but with a shudder even more thrilling than before--upon the re-modelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.
It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs. It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker's claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory, and steel mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body those two delicate arms dangled out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled. And the head itself, a ton of sculptured stone, lifted easily upon the sky. Its mouth gaped, exposing a fence of teeth like daggers. Its eyes rolled, ostrich eggs, empty of all expression save hunger. It closed its mouth in a death grin. It ran, its pelvic bones crushing aside trees and bushes, its taloned feet clawing damp earth,
leaving prints six inches deep wherever it settled its weight. It ran with a gliding ballet step, far too poised and balanced for its ten tons. It moved into a sunlit arena warily, its beautifully reptile hands feeling the air.