According to writing instructor Sol Stein in Stein On Writing, editors report that they principally reject manuscripts because there is too much static description or too much told action. In conjunction with my recent posts about adverbs and adjectives, I want to consider description today.
If a work of fiction has what I’ll call “traffic cop” description — that is, the author brings the action to a screeching halt to deliver details about characters or setting — then, if Stein is right, it is doomed for the auto-reject pile.
In this day, as novels compete with visual media, the pace in which stories are delivered has increased. No longer can a work of fiction leisurely sketch one character after another or recount the details of each location. Instead, the better writers know how to make their prose do double or triple duty.
One of the first jobs of description, beyond giving sensory data, is to characterize. Even this function is two pronged. Description may characterize the subject at the same time that it characterizes the point of view character making the particularized observation.
Take, for example, this excerpt from The Mayan Apocalypse by Mark Hiccock and Alton Gansky:
Candy Welch was tall and curvaceous with raven hair and permanently puckered lips boasting a red lipstick the color of a stop sign. She slipped into the back of the limo like she had practiced it a hundred times. Perhaps she had.
Morgan smiled, complimented her on her little black dress, and held out his hand. She brushed it away, leaned close, and kissed him on the cheek. Fire rose in his face.
“Oh, look, I left a lip print on you. Let me get that.” She removed a white, initialed hanky from the Gucci clutch she held, licked it, and began to rub his skin.
“No, please, let me. I can get it.” He pulled away.
Not only does the reader learn about Candy’s appearance, but he learns about her personality. She is forward, flaunts her sensuality, and prefers high class baubles and boyfriends. In addition, the reader also learns about the point of view character, Morgan, in part because of his reaction to her but also because of the list of details he observed.
This excerpt highlights a second important function of description — it moves the story forward. While there is an initial introduction to the character in the first sentence, the rest of the passage conveys what she is wearing, carrying, and purposing through action or dialogue.
From Stein On Writing:
We individualize by seeing characters doing things and saying things, not by the author telling us about them. Don’t ever stop your story to characterize. Avoid telling the reader what your character is like. Let the reader see your characters talking and doing things (p. 51).
Is your character short? Show her standing on tiptoes and stretching to grab something a person of average height can reach with ease.
Is your character bald? Show him donning hats before he goes outside or wiping off sweat with a handkerchief.
Better yet, find unique actions, not standard, been-there-seen-that fare. Then your triple-powered prose will take your readers along at a fast clip with lots to fill their imagination.