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Six Superpowers of Description

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Sep. 1st, 2007 | 08:25 pm

I was reading a manuscript--a very good one--from a friend recently, and it struck me that most of her descriptions were very straightforward. Common nouns are described with common adjectives, and similes and metaphor are not widely used. To some extent we can argue that this is stylistic, that "dark suit" or "white hair" are perfectly serviceable descriptions (which they are), and that nothing is needed. But this style got me thinking about description and the various jobs it can do, and I was surprised to come up with six. I'm sure there are more than six major things description can accomplish, but six will do for us, for now.
 
The reason this kind of insight might be useful is that as writers, we may be missing some wonderful opportunities when we use description for only one or two things. In other words, description has some skills that we can put to use, and if we're aware of those skills, our writer's toolbox gains some new implements.
 
It's true that we can describe things indirectly through action, as well, but for the purposes of this article I'll deal mainly with explicit description.
 
Superpower 1: Depiction
This is the obvious and arguably most important job description can accomplish. If we say only "Van came into the room and stepped up onto the couch," we barely can picture what's going on, and might be lacking key details that would matter to us. His standing on the couch will matter more if his boots are dirty, or if it's an old couch, or if he does it carefully versus roughly. "Van came into the dusty room and stood on the broken, dirt-colored couch" gives us a very different picture than "Van came into the parlor, which was as quiet and clean as a church before services, and stepped up onto the cream-colored fabric of the couch."
 
There's always the trap of getting bogged down in unnecessary details, or the worse trap of bloating your writing with too many adjectives, but that's a different issue and worth talking about separately. For the purposes of Superpower 1, it's enough to know that our writing becomes more specific and real if we're using description to depict.
 
Superpower 2: Evocation
Description can also transcend mere depiction and evoke a response from the reader that will take a long step forward in making the story feel more real and meaningful. Evocation is the art of describing or hinting things in such a way that the entire situation comes to life by comparison with a similar situation the reader has already encountered. Description can only show us specific, limited details of specific things. Evocation, by contrast, causes the reader to draw on her or his own experiences to fill in a huge number of details. It's much more difficult, but much more powerful when it works.
 
As an example, above we just talked about a dusty room. If we can instead talk about Van sweeping away cobwebs that cling invisibly to his sleeve, pushing a warped door open with a squawk and doused in a smell like a basement that has been given over entirely to spiders and centipedes, we may be able to evoke in the reader enough connections that the old parlor in the abandoned house will come alive with their own memories of basements or attics or neglected rooms.
 
Simile (a door as warped as a potato chip) and metaphor (a metropolis of spiders) can be powerful tools here when used well.
 
Superpower 3: Characterization
Description can give us an additional tool in characterization, not just in describing the outward character (which would already be covered in depiction and evocation), but in skewing the perception of what's around us through the eyes of the viewpoint character. If Van walks into a room in an abandoned house and we describe the room as "as dead and secret as Tutankhamen's tomb", this implies that Van either has a sense of adventure or expects to find something worth finding in the room. If we describe it as "like his grandmother's parlor might be if it were left to its own devices for twenty years", this can give us a completely different sense of the character. Using description this way can be useful to suggesting the character's immediate state of mind, the character's general proclivities, or both.
 
Superpower 4: Foreshadowing
Description also gives us an opportunity to steer our reader a little, to raise expectations or provide suspense or misdirect or hint at what interesting things are yet to come. While our job as writers is not to manipulate the reader, it is our job to provide an experience crafted to be interesting and compelling and to suggest certain directions, and description can help in this. If we talk about the room Van enters as "aching with a strained silence," this suggests to us that something will soon break that silence. If we say that the floor groans and a snapping noise comes from somewhere deeper in the room, we begin to worry about how sound the building is and whether it will collapse on Van.
 
Superpower 5: Flagging
Description can also be used as a flag to mark something as important. If Van walks into a store and asks a question of a "a cashier engrossed in a magazine," the lack of detail suggests that the cashier isn't important and will not be playing a large part in the story. If instead, though, we talk about a slim, spiky-haired girl hunched over a half-crumpled copy of the National Enquirer, readers are likely to pay a little more attention to her and be comfortable with her assuming a larger part in the story.
 
With that said, good description is sometimes useful to simply add color, entertainment, verisimilitude, tone, or other features to the story. The reader doesn't necessary expect that the cashier has to have an important part in the story if we single her out for a moment; it's just an additional option. If she later turns out to be important after not appearing for a long time, though, we will have made a much stronger impression and the reader will be much more likely to remember her and enjoy her reappearance if we've described her well initially.
 
Superpower 6: Style
Finally (at least as regards my list of description's powers), description can be used as a tool above and outside the story. This is a bit of a dangerous approach in some ways, since it means that the author is putting the experience of reading ahead of the experience of the story. Therefore, this can be an entirely bad choice, and by and large it should be done either for the whole story or not at all, since in a story that is otherwise delivered in as transparent a way as possible, a way that puts the reader there in the events, authorial intrusion yanks the reader out and damages that experience.
 
With that said, some writers (Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain leap to mind) make a carnival of description, using it as much to show off entertainingly as to push the story along. If we describe a character as looking like a "goat's butt, with his sad little tuft of forehead hair serving for a tail", that could potentially be amusing, and if description of that kind is delivered consistently, the reader could find it very satisfying. In the first paragraph of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams describes a house that "was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye."
 
Stylistic description seems to be most useful for humor, but it can also be used for commentary, whether on specific situations or on the human condition. It can also be used in conjuction with the characterization power to make a highly enjoyable, sympathetic first person narrator.
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I'll leave it there for today. In closing, I'll repeat that I don't think these are necessarily the only powers description has to offer, and I'll add a caveat that not all six of these powers may be ones that you necessarily should use. Style is the clearest example of a descriptive power that may be best reserved for certain writers or certain types of writing, but it may not fit your style either, for instance, to foreshadow or characterize with description. With that said, I'd urge you to experiment with all six powers to see if any of them might suit you despite being underrepresented in your writing so far.

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Cat Rambo

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from: catrambo
date: Sep. 2nd, 2007 03:10 pm (UTC)
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Great post, Luc, and provides a good bit to chew on -- thank you.

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