Description Gone Wild
First off, let me admit I’m not much of a description gal either in reading or writing. In many novels, I have to force myself to slow down enough to read the description or go with my default which is to skip more than three of four lines of it. In my own writing, I rarely describe the characters physically and my descriptions of the environment are, to be kind, limited. So, you need to factor this in when you read what I have to say about description.
Writers are exhorted to include all the sensuous detail. And by and large, that’s good advice. You want the reader to smell the coffee, feel the silk of the pillow, hear the rattle of the car, see the volcano erupting, and maybe even gasp aloud at the plot twist you cleverly inserted.
Having said that, it can go too far. I recreate a piece I once heard at a writing workshop.
I arrived at the entrance. It was a big grey stone building with bars on the lower windows and mesh on the upper ones. I knocked at the door. It was opened by a guard. He had on a grey uniform with a black belt. He had me sign in. He handed me a pass. The buzzer sounded to let me through the door. I walked down a long corridor. The walls were painted grey and nothing was hung on them. I got to the next checkpoint. There was another guard, also in grey with a black belt. He looked at the pass the first guard had given me and pressed the button which buzzed the door open. I walked down the long grey corridor, then took a left turn down another and found room 45.
I’ll quit before I fall asleep. This blow-by-blow description includes a lot of detail (although sensuous is in question). To my mind, it is not a useful piece of description.
I take that back, perhaps. In the hands of a skilled writer, the entrance into the building could have been valuable if the intent was to show the grey hopelessness of the surroundings. But then you need to rejigger it to emphasize this. In its present iteration, it is more a litany of steps rather than the creation of a specific mood.
The use of description
Description needs to be in service of the story. That is, an account of the countryside view is to establish how isolated the mansion is; you have to mention that Alice has dark hair so she’s less likely to be seen in a dark corridor when eavesdropping. Every part, including description, needs to be in service of the narrative. If it is not, no matter how beautiful, you need to give it a good hard look to decide if it stays or is consigned to the ‘extra’ file.
The annoying part of writing is, of course, that there are always exceptions to every rule. Some writers’ descriptions cause swoons in their readers’ ranks and perhaps you aspire to that. Okay, fine. However, I bet if you did a close analysis of a novel whose descriptions you particularly admire, you’d find that the descriptions by and large still are in service of the story as well as being beautiful.
The trick is to know whether you can ignore this practice or are better off sticking to the tried and true. See my upcoming post on breaking the rules. Obviously, and ultimately, only you can make that decision. But for the rest of us, I think it is well to keep in mind that description should be in service of the story, whether to establish mood, or anchor a plot point, or anything else which will help the reader stay in the continuous dream.