That’s my mea culpa for the day. If I had to rank my perceived strengths as a writer in descending order, description would linger odiously in the basement with the lawn furniture and the dresser my wife keeps reminding me we need to sell. I’m good at dialogue, at proposing ideas and batting them around, at the exploration of questions of human nature and our place in the universe, but, ask me to put any of these items in a setting that leaps off the page and I will curl up in the corner of that setting sobbing like an infant afraid of having his wooby taken away. Every time I go back through my novel for revisions and start to think, “hey, this isn’t so bad,” I encounter someone else’s work that blows me back through the wall and turns my confidence to lime Jell-O. I just can’t seem to crack that important element and it drives me bonkers.
I’ve devoted a lot of self-examination to trying to figure out why this aspect is so difficult for me. Some writers seem to be able to do it flawlessly. Within a few short, concise phrases you know exactly where you are – your imagination is triggered and the setting shimmers into existence around you as though you had stepped into the holodeck and announced “Run Program.” Writing, as someone famous whose name escapes me for the moment has observed (I think it was Joyce Carol Oates), is about creating atmosphere. My focus, however, has always been on character, though, and how the characters interrelate, and that usually means dialogue, and lots of it. (And of course, you run into plenty of writing advice that suggests too much dialogue is a bad thing. Can’t win, can’t even quit the game.) In a perfect world, this is how I would describe almost every scene, so I could get on with crafting conversations (from Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett):
A country road. A tree. Evening.
A few more words about Estragon trying to pull off his boot and we’re off to the races. Okay then, you’re asking, why don’t you just write plays then? I’ve written exactly one play, it was called Brushstrokes, a three-act examination of hidden love and the inability of men to admit their feelings tied together with a tenuous nail polish metaphor, and well, the less said about it the better. That’s not to say I’ll never try another one, but in writing it I missed the ability to digress into stretches of narrative, to get into the heads of the characters and figure out what they were thinking. It is not to suggest that novels don’t have to have structure, or limits for that matter, but they tend to be a freer place to play. You can linger on a particular thought, explore its depths and its reaches, without worrying too much about a foot-tapping, finger-drumming audience waiting in exasperation for the next line. It can be rather like the van that took forever to fall off the bridge in Inception without seeming to drag down the pace – again, depending on how you write it. So it helps if you’re really good at that.
Many great writers are poets and can bring that sensibility to details as slight as a flake of ash falling from a burning cigarette, or the single flap of a hummingbird’s wing. My description, by contrast, tends to be simple and straightforward. What you need to know and no more. Here’s an example from my novel:
Splinters of wood and crumbling brick from ramshackle buildings line the pockmarked street. Lampposts bent by storms and vandals stand eerie sentry. The rattle of broken window shutters is this rotting borough’s only tenant.
Dotted by whitecaps, the river is an icy gray. Brine and rotting algae poisons the air. The north side of the city lurks, cloaked, beneath frigid fog. At the end of the jetty, a flat barge with a water wheel at its stern strains against the grip of the ropes anchoring it in place. Creaking twin planks on its starboard side wobble under the boots of passengers laden with sacks and baskets who are shuffling aboard to claim a precious portion of the hard benches in the center of the craft.
A paved drive marked by a trail of brass lanterns on iron posts conducts us through spacious, garden-rich grounds, past a stone-rimmed lily pond watched by a gazebo, once-trim shrubs and dwarf trees grown wild with neglect. The secluded manse that presides is half-hidden by branches yet still exudes wealth and pretense, as if trying to compete with its neighbors. Long thin windows with black shutters adorn the exterior, while a portico supported by white columns protrudes over the front entrance. A terraced second floor is set back on the high roof of the first. A pointless relief of vine-entwined roses on the portico adds to the sense of superfluous money that permeates this place.
There is nothing technically wrong with any of these passages, but poetry they sure as hell ain’t. Even looking at them sitting here out of context I want to rewrite them from word one. One’s spirit crumples into crushed tinfoil at the possibility of being considered a candidate for a Bulwer-Lytton award, or as the latest Eye of Argon. But you do what you can with what you have and keep trying to do better. And though sometimes you gnash your teeth at the raw talent on display in some other people’s mere first drafts, you can’t let that stop you from moving forward.
The mistake that I tend to make and that many others probably do as well is in not having the description of the scene push the story forward in any way. Think of it in terms of the last time you related a funny anecdote to your best friend. You didn’t say, “So, I was at the grocery store. It was a massive, soulless building painted in black and brown and the floor tiles bore the smudges of the soles of a thousand tired mothers dragging screaming children who were unable to comprehend the simple nutritional logic of why it wasn’t a good idea to eat chocolate at every meal.” Your friend is sitting there saying “I don’t care! What happened at the store?!” You want to stage the scene and sprinkle in some color, but putting in that kind of description is like hitting the pause button. It breaks the momentum and adds nothing.
Those who know what they’re doing, even writers who are incredibly journalistic and fetishistic about detail, like the late Ian Fleming, use that information to push the narrative – to tell you about the character they’re trying to sketch in your mind. The sometimes excruciating manner in which Fleming waxes on about James Bond’s breakfast preferences still manages to tell you something important, that this is a man who defines himself very much by his tastes, and he is as much a social competitor with the villains he squares off against as he is a knight trying to slay the fearsome dragon. It works, though, because everyone knows how Bond likes his martini, and “shaken, not stirred” has become entrenched in the zeitgeist (even if Aaron Sorkin insists it’s wrong).
Also, as human beings, we tend to notice individual details rather than the big picture. This is crucial when you are writing first-person perspective as well because you can’t use that detached, “I SEE AND HEAR ALL” narrative voice. When you spot an attractive person coming towards you, there’s probably one specific trait that strikes you first; their eyes, their smile, what have you. And that characteristic will define them in your mind from then on. That girl with the long dark hair, the guy with the shark tattoo on his right forearm. (It does not have to be a visual characteristic either: the girl who sings like a parrot with laryngitis, or the guy who smells like apple cinnamon soap.) The same goes with scenery. The tall building with the broken window on the top floor. The car with the coughing exhaust pipe. If your character has a particular perspective on the world, what they notice will flow organically out of that perspective as well. Mine is accustomed to the peace of a silent forest, so the things she takes note of are what stands out to her as unusual – noise and artifice. If I’ve done my job correctly, that should tell you something about her and how she views the world. If not, then it’s back to the rewrite shed for another round of head-splitting angst and wondering why, despite people telling me contrary and often, I continue, in my own mind, to suck.
Anyone else struggling with this stuff? Let me know. Let’s help each other out.