Description Through Observation

by Adam Sexton

Your descriptive writing will never be adequate, much less truly sparkle, unless you observe the world closely, carefully. Constantly. The best descriptive writers are the best observers—of sight and sound, smell and taste, of texture.

As a graduate student in the 1950s, John Updike was trained as a visual artist, and artists aren’t taught merely to draw and paint and sculpt. They’re taught to see. Reading a description of Ruth’s apartment in Updike’s novel Rabbit Run, it’s easy to imagine that Updike might have succeeded as a painter of genre scenes in the manner of Vermeer.

                    The shade is half-drawn, and low light gives each nubbin
                    on the bedspread a shadow.

Who but a painter would notice this?

A proper descriptive writer, that’s who. Proper descriptive writers pay particular attention to light and effects. Of course, they pay attention to sound, too, and the texture of things (nubbiny bedspreads and the like), tastes, and—perhaps most challenging of all to describe—odors. The next time you smell freshly baked bread, gasoline, a glass of beer, or a lawn that was recently mowed, ask yourself what each of those things smells like, besides itself. In other words, try to experience the fragrance rather than merely identifying it. The exercise will improve your abilities as an observer.

Another Updike word-painting evokes Rabbit’s rundown neighborhood. Rather than a genre scene, this one is a streetscape influenced by the Ashcan school: 

                    The frame homes climb the hill like a single staircase. The space of six feet
                    or so that each double house rises above its neighbor contains two wan 
                    windows, wide-spaced like the eyes of an animal, and is covered with 
                    composition shingling varying in color from bruise to dung. The fronts are 
                    scabby clapboards, once white. There are a dozen three-story homes, and 
                    each has two doors. The seventh door is his.

If we even noticed this scene on the margin of our own lives, most of us would turn away from its scabby squalor in something like revulsion. Updike looks hard, and as a result he truly sees. He sees, among other things, that the apparent colorlessness of the houses actually forms a sort of anti-rainbow.

Would-be storytellers also must learn to notice human behavior in all its infinite variety. How do people walk—trudging or tiptoeing, swaggering or skipping? How do they sit? Do they slouch in rigid desk chairs, perch primly on the arms of Barcaloungers? How do seated people cross their legs? (There’s an uproarious riff on this in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.)  In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses gesture to differentiate one character from another and make each of them believable and memorable. Tom Buchanan stand with his legs apart, like a Colossus astride the world, or at least East Egg. When the book’s narrator first sees the professional athlete Jordan Baker, she appears to be balancing something invisible on her chin. Perhaps it goes without saying, but in order to include these descriptions of gesture, Fitzgerald had to notice them, or something like them.

The same goes for Updike’s characters. We never see Rabbit more vividly than during his abortive migration south, when he gets lost and consults a road map.

                    He claws at it and tears it; with a gasp of exasperation he rips away a great 
                    triangular piece and tears the large remnant in half and, more calmly, lays these
                    three pieces on top of each other and tears them in half, and then those six 
                    pieces and so on until he has a wad he can squeeze in his hand like a ball.

Like a ball.  Finally, something Rabbit can relate to. He promptly tosses it out the window of the car.

No other character in Rabbit Run would handle a map exactly the way Rabbit does. Poor Janice, for instance, might briefly try to fold it before giving up and deciding to shove the ragged results inside the glove compartment. Unable to open the glove compartment, she then would backhand into the back seat an unfolded map, and there it would remain, out of sight and way, way, out of mind.

Spy on two couples saying goodbye after a meal together sometime, only mute the audio and just watch. What can you learn about the relationships among the four by means of facial expressions and, especially, body language? Have the couples segregated themselves by gender for those last words before farewell? Who clearly wants to hurry home, as evinced by steps backward and wrap-it-up nods? Who—feet firmly planted, torso tipped forward—hopes the encounter will go on and on? Who sets up another meeting in a date book or Palm Pilot? Do handshakes end it, or hugs—or the handshake-hug combo that certain men favor.

How do different individuals hold things—hold each other, and themselves? How do they eat, drink, drive cars? When they watch television, are they reading a newspaper at the same time? Maybe they’re munching on a sandwich, talking on the phone, or knitting. How do they fight? Real people don’t fight the way they do in the movies. If punches are thrown, one usually ends things. How do they dance? How do they have sex? (John Updike’s sex scenes are renowned.) Forget what you’ve seen and heard in the movies and on TV, or read in bad books. Forget what you’ve read in good books! Stop, look, and listen. Smell. Touch. Taste.


This article is excerpted from Adam Sexton's book Master Class in Fiction Writing.