Reasons to Describe

by Peter Selgin

When I teach fiction workshops, I start out by laying down the writer’s two requisite loves: a love of words and a love of truth. The first love is obvious, the second less so. Because if fiction lies, it’s a lie of a special order, a lie that tells the truth. The good fiction writer is as obsessed with precision as a brain surgeon. She’s someone who, while pulling your chain, feels compelled to get it just right—who insists on clarity and accuracy even when describing something as foggy and fleeting as a feeling.

More than anything else we do, description puts those two loves to the test. Whether we’re writing summary or scene, all writing is descriptive. But if writing good dialogue demands that we slip into the wings and let our characters take center stage, description gives us a chance to chew up some scenery while pitching our voices to the chandeliers. Think Maria Callas belting the finale of Tosca, or Charlie Parker climbing a brass ladder to the moon. We not only express our loves, we air our lungs.

Yet even the finest set-piece description should serve something more than its author’s glory. Showing-off may be one reason for describing things, but I can think of four better ones.

To explain the unfamiliar

Whether your story takes place at the dawn of the Chinese Revolution or in a backroom poker parlor, unless you familiarize readers with your milieu they may fail to grasp the subtle twists in your plot. You needn’t roll out the map of Shanghai, quote Chairman Mao or recite long passages from Slansky’s Theory of Poker. But some description is called for to orient readers to what might otherwise be a completely alien landscape, and give them solid ground to stand on.

Ever mainline heroin? Read Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm and you’ll feel as if you have:

It hit all right. It hit the heart like a runaway locomotive, it hit like a falling wall. Frankie’s whole body lifted with that smashing surge, the very heart seemed to lift up-up-up—then rolled over and he slipped into a long warm bath with one long orgasmic sigh of relief. Frankie opened his eyes . . . He was in a room. Somebody’s dust-colored wavy-walled room and he wasn’t quite dead after all.

When Algren wrote this passage he’d never tried heroin; he had an aversion to needles. Yet he knew addicts, and trusted his knowledge and imagination to get it right. Algren throws not just his fancy but his whole body into this passage, becoming Frankie as the “hit” blasts through his blood “like a runaway locomotive.” Note the doubling-up of similes, with Algren squirming for the right image as his protagonist squirms under the needle, and those up-up-ups clawing their way out of agony.

To breathe life into the familiar

Our descriptive arsenals shouldn’t only be aimed at things exotic. Now and then one needs to make the familiar fresh, to rouse the jaded reader who sits with arms smugly folded thinking, “Been there; done that.” For such readers description may be our only hope.

Take New York City on a hot summer day. Been there? Done that? I figured as much. But have you been to this particular New York during this specific summer:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers—goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.      
 —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Plath may have been stupid about electrocutions, but when it came to describing things she was no dummy. Take those “goggle-eyed” headlines. Who but a major poet puts goggles on a newspaper to strike a vivid, dead-on image? As for that “fusty, peanut-smelling” subway, I’ve lived in New York City now for over thirty years, and have yet to smell peanuts in a subway station. Yet Plath’s nose for convincing detail is so sharp I can no longer ride the subway without imagining that smell.

To convince through authentic detail

To make people believe in things that never happened, to get them to swallow our “lies”: that’s our job. Factual or not, some details are so startlingly specific they convince us that the storyteller has lived through whatever experience is put forth. When in his novel Deliverence (about men encountering savagery on a canoe trip in Appalachia), James Dickey describes an underwater log covered with chicken feathers as “a vague choked whiteness. . .with all the feather-hairs weaving and wavering in a perfect physical representation of nausea,” the detail is too specific and strong to resist, and any lingering doubts as to the author’s authority are put to bed.

On the other hand, when a lack of authentic detail leaves room for doubt, what rushes in to fill the vacuum? Cliché. Take the following familiar scene: a fireman rushing into a burning building to rescue a child. Forget flames: the real danger here is triteness. The reader knows just what to expect, or thinks she does. Meet those expectations perfectly and the scene fails.

So what does the brave author do? Just as the scene is about to burst into bathos, he has his fireman hear an odd, trickling sound—water hissing through pipes—that turns out to be the wax melting in his ears. And as surely as fireman rescues child his creator saves the reader from cliché.

To deepen character and evoke emotion

Unlike clichés, good descriptions never occur in a vacuum; they are subject to the moods and emotions of the characters whose worlds they describe.  A Ferris wheel slowly turning from the point of view of a little girl who has just won her first stuffed panda will differ significantly from the same Ferris wheel viewed by a man whose son has just died in the trenches of WW I.

Here, in one of literature’s most famous descriptive passages, a snowstorm seen through the eyes of a man who has just learned that his wife still holds a candle for a lover long dead:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight . . .Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Fury lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. . .

For those who’ve never read James Joyce’s “The Dead,” I’ll leave off the last line of this swooning aria. Some argue that Joyce goes too far, that the snow “falling faintly” while also “softly falling” (and falling a half dozen other ways) takes too many repetitive, onomatopoeic, and alliterative liberties, that the passage is gaudy. Call me a sucker for Weltschmerz; I say it’s gorgeous. The repetitions are meant to lull us—like a hypnotist’s watch—into a trance similar to that induced in the main character by the spectacle of the falling snow (and damned if they don’t). Meanwhile, the “dark central plain,” the “treeless hills,” the “Bog of Allen,” all point to specific places even as they stretch endlessly outward to include the universe.

This article is excerpted from Peter Selgin’s book By Cunning and Craft.