I recently wrote four writer friends the following:“I’m part of a panel sponsored by the American Society of Journalists and Authors in New York City (which was held April 26-28).. The title of the panel is ‘Tell Me What you See: Mastering the Art of Writing Description.” Any tips?
These are their responses.
Tell them about using the five senses. About the objective correlative – the actual thing that gives the feeling or what some people call the emotional algebra. Tell them about psychic distance – how point of view affects description, whether its first person, second person, third person limited omniscient, third person omniscient, etc. Tell them about levels of abstraction and seeing things as a child. Tell them about indirect and direct speech (The New Yorker – no indirection, nothing assumed; Hemingway almost no subjectivity.) Tell them about Hemingway describing action.
One of my favourite Hemingway quotes from The Green Hills of Africa goes:
“First, there must be talent, much talent. Talent such as Kipling had. Then there must be discipline. The discipline of Flaubert. Then there must be the conception of what it can be and absolute conscience as unchanging as the standard meter in Paris, to prevent faking. Then the writer must be intelligent and disinterested and above all he must survive.”
Perhaps the most striking word in this quote is “disinterested,” which seems a strange trait to encourage in writers. By this, I believe that Hemingway meant that a good writer must have the ability to take a step back and observe life, dispassionately, unblinkered by dogma or fear, never turning away from notions that society deems unacceptable.
Ten guidelines drawn from Hemingway:
1. Distrust all adverbs and adjectives.
2. Use specific concrete sense details.
3. The writer should use the specific concrete to illustrate the abstract universal.
4. Eliminate all unnecessary words.
5. Get to the action as soon as possible.
6. Action is character.
7. Dialogue is also action and a projection of character.
8. “He said” and “She said” are the best tag lines for dialogue.
9. All description should be intentional in serving a purpose larger than just description.
10. A round character is flawed or has internal conflict.
Finally, a description of Hemingway’s descriptive art, from an essay by Daniel Haggard:
I have spent a long time on this point of my pleasure, because I want to give the reader some idea of the rigor of Hemingway’s writing. A lot of intelligent people that I have known to have read Hemingway are quick to wonder where the substance is. The text comes across as hopelessly simple to those readers who are used to struggling through impossible abstractions in narrative. But anyone who tries to write even a small amount of text in the style of Hemingway will realise very quickly how exacting it is – how difficult it is to restrain oneself from colouring the descriptions with metaphor and abstraction (we do it so naturally). When you think of this effort extended over an entire novel, one begins to feel the awe that one feels when in the presence of a great writer.
The challenge and great difficulty with Hemingway is that you are left to develop the abstractions yourself. And ultimately, it is abstractions that we use to find significance in works.
I must admit I get a little frustrated with readers who say there is nothing in Hemingway. This is generally the type of reader that likes his abstractions dished up on the plate for him a la writers like Henry James. Henry James is often touted as a writer of great subtlty. There are two meanings to subtle: 1) dificult to perceive, or 2) in having great perception. Henry James’ writing may fit the 2nd sense – but to me it does not fit the first. Hemingway’s writing is subtle in both senses of the word. Readers, often of a literary persuasion, that don’t like Hemingway, don’t see their task in reading as having to piece together the elements that form the whole. They see this as the job of the author. And if the author hasn’t done it – then they have no reason to suppose it is there at all to be done.
Best tips I’ve ever gotten/heard/stolen on this:
1. Just because you have a detail doesn’t mean you should use it. Use details that matter. How does this detail push the story forward and/or shed light on the character? For example, it’s good to do enough reporting to find out that your character was driving a light green Ford Taurus with a stick shift, satellite radio and 120,000 miles on the speedometer. But it’s rare indeed that all of those details would be necessary.
2. Use details in action. Don’t tell me that the old man walked with a cane. Show him using the cane as he stumbles across the cemetery to visit his widow’s grave.
3. I heard a columnist once say that the way she solicits details from sources is by telling them that she wants the story/column to read as if someone is watching a movie. Which means she’s going to ask them a lot of seemingly silly questions about what they wore and what kind of cereal they were eating and how much the necklace they wore cost. Maybe it was the notion that they were being compared to movie stars, but the sources really responded to this, she said.
4. From Roy Peter Clark at the Poynter Institute: Always, always get the name of the dog.
5. Here’s one from me. I used to really love it when clever writers used a lot of original similes and descriptions in their writing – “sweating like a condemned man,” “a pony tail as black and thick as a pony’s tail.” Now I think such cleverness tends to take away from the story and the character and brings more attention to the writer and the writing. I think you want sensory descriptions, but if someone has red hair, I don’t think you have to say it’s as red as an embarrassed politician’s cheeks. Just say it’s red.
6. Just go through the average issue of The New Yorker. They do a great job of adding descriptive little brush strokes in profiles and stories.
7. SHOW, DON’T TELL. Gene Robers likes to tell how Henry Belk, his mentor and the former editor of the News-Argus, used to edit copy. Because Belk was blind, Roberts would have to read his stories out loud to the old editor. Blind Henry Belk would sit there in his big oak armchair, head titled back, the warm humid air blowing in off the city square, listening intently as Gene would read his pieces aloud. And if a story didn’t work or didn’t suit old Henry Belk, he’d cry out loud, “MAKE ME SEE IT, GENE. MAKE ME SEE IT.”
And one more:
8. This is my favorite description on writing descriptively, from James K. Kilpatrick:
James J. Kilpatrick from a handout from Saturday: Back in 1968, novelist Lee Smith spun an autobiographical story of a nine-year-old girl. The book was The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed. In the summer of her story, young Susan liked to go to a nearby pond and think about things: “Sometimes I would sit and look at everything very hard, so it would stay in my head for always.” In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard said much the same thing. She used to sit for hours beside a stream, “sensitive and mute as a photographic plate,” while impressions were deposited on her mind.
This is the first secret of good writing: We must look intently, and hear intently, and taste intently. Like nine-year-old Susan, we must look at everything very hard. Is it the task at hand to describe a snowfall? Very well. We begin by observing that the snow is white. Is it as white as bond paper? White as whipped cream? Is the snow daisy white, or eggwhite, or whitewash white? Let us look very hard. We will see that snow comes in different textures. The light snow that looks like powdered sugar is not the heavy snow that clings like wet cotton. When we write matter-of-factly that Last night it snowed and this morning the fields were white, we haven’t said much. We have not looked intently.
No tips you don’t already know – pick a few precise details rather than a bunch; I’m sure Tom Wolfe would urge writers to pick the details that reflect the subject’s status or status anxiety; Freud would say to select those that reveal the subject’s psychology or need to bang his mother; and S.J. Perelman would probably tell you to pick the ones that sound funny. And NEVER type, as a writer of my acquaintance did in a book, “the moon punched a hole in the sky.”
In order to describe, first you have to observe, so the first part of better descriptive writing is being a better observer. Cultivate your attention and perception. Take notes. Especially try to bring things into your awareness that normally escape it. Use all five of your senses. Smell is often neglected.
There’s two kinds of observation: objective and subjective. For objective observation, get hard statistics about the people/places/things in your writing. How many cubic feet of water flow through the dam in a minute? How many people were present at the rally? what year was the house built? What’s the latitude and longitude of the town? Even things that you don’t think of as being quantifiable sometimes are; for example, colors can be identified by number using pantone numbers.
For subjective observation it’s really important to be in touch with your own responses to objects. This is one reason writers like yoga, meditation, and other mind/body pursuits: they train us to pay attention to our own internal temperature. Is the CEO vaguely creepy? Does the tiny college town seem like it’s trying too hard? Do the Christmas lights make you sad?
Next comes writing about it. A few general rules:
1. Nouns are better than adjectives.
2. Lists are good. This is the first page of one of my favorite YA novels, Weetzie Bat, set in LA:
“The reason Weetzie Bat hated high school was because no one understood. They didn’t even realize where they were living. They didn’t care that Marilyn’s prints were practically in their backyard at Graumann’s; that you could buy tomahawks and plastic palm tree wallets at Farmer’s Market, and the wildest, cheapest cheese and bean and hot dog and pastrami burritos at Oki Dogs; that the waitresses wore skates at the Jetson-style Tiny Naylor’s; that there was a fountain that turned tropical soda-pop colors, and a canyon where Jim Morrison and Houdini used to live, and all-night potato knishes at Canter’s, and not too far away was Venice, with columns, and canals, even, like the real Venice but maybe cooler because of the surfers. There was no one who cared. Until Dirk.
3. Use similes sparingly – a good rule is only if the comparison occurred to you when you originally saw the object.
4. The right time for description is the first time a person/place/thing is introduced. thereafter you probably only want to describe it if it changes or if the narrator has cause to notice a previously unremarked quality (i.e., if a person takes off an object of clothing, you might describe their body as it now appears.
5. You should always be true to your own voice and write in your own way. However, you should also notice what you’re weak at – things that you find very hard to describe – and try to strengthen your muscles in that area. One way to do that is by finding authors who are good at this. For example, I’m pretty good at describing people but I’m bad at describing topography, architecture, objects in space. I admire the crime fiction writer Donald Westlake’s ability to describe these things. I study sections of his work where he describes auto routes and apartment floor plans. I like Haruki Murikami for the same reason. Then I work really hard at trying to describe spaces the way these men might describe them.