Include Details That Matter
Writing descriptively requires making choices. A creative, observant writer can find dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of details to describe in any scene, person, or object. But good description doesn’t simply mean giving as much detail as possible. It means selecting the most important details to include and presenting them vividly and memorably.
Good writers don’t waste words. They know how valuable words can be and are careful to spend them wisely.
Here’s an example of a descriptive passage from Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer:
Evening is the best time in Gentilly. There are not so many trees and the buildings are low and the world is all sky. The sky is a deep bright ocean full of light and life. A mare’s tail of cirrus cloud stands in high from the Gulf. High above the Lake a broken vee of ibises points for the marshes; they go suddenly white as they fly into the tilting salient of sunlight. Swifts find a windy middle reach of sky and come twittering down so fast I think at first gnats have crossed my eyelids. …Station wagons and Greyhounds and diesel rigs rumble toward the Gulf Coast, their fabulous tail-lights glowing like rubies in the darkening east. Most of the commercial buildings are empty except the filling stations where attendants hose down the concrete under the glowing discs and shells and stars.[i]
What details did the author select for this passage? The sky, including clouds and birds in flight, the highway and the vehicles that travel it, and attendants at filling stations. Why those particular details? Only the author really knows, but there must be something about the sky and the highway that was important to the town of Gentilly or to the story this excerpt comes from.
The point is, there are innumerable details that the author could have selected to include but chose not to. Any time you write description, you will have to make the same decision — what to include and what to leave out. Don’t be haphazard in making these choices.
Authors, like Walker Percy, often spend lots of time describing scenery. They want to give the reader a sense of environment. It’s nice to feel like you are in a real place when reading a story. And real places have an effect on your emotions. A place can give you a sense of comfort, like Water Rat’s burrow in The Wind in the Willows or Bag End in The Hobbit; or a sense of wonder and grandeur like Camelot or Cinderella’s castle. It can be mysterious and foreboding like Satis House in Great Expectations or the Ministry of Love in Orwell’s 1984; or full of promise and adventure like the river in Huckleberry Finn or Neverland in Peter Pan. Writers create atmosphere by selecting details that create mood.
Observe how Graham Greene creates an atmosphere in the opening lines of his novel The Power and the Glory:
Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder, into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few vultures looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn’t carrion yet. A faint feeling of rebellion stirred in Mr. Tench’s heart, and he wrenched up a piece of the road with splintering finger-nails and tossed it feebly towards them. One rose and flapped across the town: over the tiny plaza, over the bust of an ex-president, ex-general, ex-human being, over the two stalls which sold mineral water, towards the river and the sea. It wouldn’t find anything there: the sharks looked after the carrion on that side. Mr. Tench went on across the plaza.[ii]
Not exactly a place you want to visit over Spring Break, is it? Notice how just a few details paint the scene: sun and dust, vultures, a statue. As readers we don’t need much more to get the picture.
We don’t really want too much detail. Some things are better left to the imagination. This is also important when describing people. Effectively describing a person involves pointing out what distinguishes him from everybody else. What about him is memorable, unusual, or intriguing? Here’s a poor example of description. Notice the blandness and monotony of the details. It’s the work of a writer who looks carefully, but chooses indiscriminately:
Ivan Jones stood about five feet, ten inches tall. He had an average build and brown eyes. He wore a gray suit with a white shirt, a dark blue tie, black belt and dull black shoes. He was handsome, but not enough to turn any heads at the country club. He had short, wavy brown hair cut modestly short. He was clean-shaven and had neatly symmetrical eyebrows. His skin was smooth except for the wrinkles that appeared at the corners of his eyes when he smiled. He didn’t smile much, though, because he was self-conscious about his teeth. They were vividly white, but his incisors were unusually long and sharp.
Most of this paragraph reads like a Charlie Brown school teacher: blah-blah-blah blah-blah. Who cares about his brown hair, average build and boring clothes? That part about his teeth though — now that’s interesting. In fact, it gets you thinking, doesn’t it? Sounds like…fangs!
Perhaps the author wanted to emphasize how ordinary Ivan looks so that the part about his teeth really stood out. Maybe. Or maybe he just got carried away with details that don’t really matter. You can decide for yourself.
In fact, that’s the whole idea of this lesson — to remind you that description is about making decisions. The details you leave out can be just as important as those you include. Choose details that matter. Why they matter might not be immediately apparent to the reader, but that’s okay — as long as you know why they’re there.