The Challenge of Using Description in One’s Story

This entry originally appeared on Alex Lukeman’s blog, The Independent Writer.

Realism and Description

by Alex Lukeman

I received a wonderful comment this morning from a reader about my newest book, The Seventh Pillar (you can check it out by clicking on the cover picture to your left). Part of the book is set in the desert wastelands of the Western Sahara. I try to make the settings and details of my books accurate and real enough so the reader can picture him/herself right there, in this case with sand and heartless rock under their feet and heat beating down from a sky as intense and vivid as my imagination and experience can make it.

The reader had not been to the part of the desert I used in the book, but she had spent time in Saudi Arabia and she felt like she was there, with my characters, under that relentless sun and endless sky. Her comment made my day because it meant that I had succeeded in what I had tried to do, make the reader FEEL like she was THERE, where it counts.

Realism. Description. The challenge we face as writers to transport our readers to the worlds of our imagination, wherever and whatever they may be. It is unlikely my reader will ever find herself in a place where very bad people want to kill her, at least I certainly hope not. The magic of realistic description took her there.

I think one of the great challenges of story-making is knowing how much description is enough, or when it is called for. Too much, the reader goes to sleep. Too little, there is no context for the actions of the characters. It’s like the three bears–too hard, too soft, just right.

Complicate that by the kind of book it is. Some books linger forever. The Naked and the Dead (remember that one?). East of Eden. The Sun Also Rises. The Grapes of Wrath. Somehow we become imbued with a sense of time and place that stays even when the details of character, plot and story become hazy. Although I hated the book (not too strong a word), The Road comes to mind. Cold Mountain. And I really like Calumet City for crime noir urban grit.

These books are as different as can be from one another in setting and intent, but they all have incredibly skilled description of time and place as a core strength.

Good description is far more than the color of the sand or the haze over the mountains. It’s a sensual experience when you get it right. You hear and feel the rustle of the wind, see the ominous beauty of a desert sunset and smell the heat coming off the barren lands around you. As much as possible, all senses are involved.

WARNING: OPINION ALERT
Unless you are a Steinbeck or a Thomas Wolfe,
exercise caution.

When I write, the draft is always full of extraneous description which must be edited down to essence, something the reader can digest and feel while the story moves on. I can wax rhapsodic about almost anything (one of the things I love about blogging is that you can get away with clichés like that). But how much does a reader need?

Take a descriptive passage from whatever book you are working on out of context and open it in a new document. Read it again, out of context. Does it put you where you want the reader to be? If the reader didn’t know the plot or who the characters were or what was happening, would that passage stand on its own? Does it feel real? If the answer is in doubt, perhaps you should rethink that description.

Michael Connelly is one of my favorite contemporary authors, for many reasons. Often he has his protagonist Harry Bosch standing on the deck of a precariously perched house in one of the canyons of LA. Each time, I get a new sense of the place even though I’ve stood on that deck with Harry through many books. Connelly doesn’t need pages to make it work. He’s a master of essence.

That’s a challenge for all of us.

Write Like A Champion today.

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