The Skill List Project: Writing Descriptive Passages

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. As promised last time, we’re going to look at writing description, one of the most important skills in prose fiction. When you think about it, prose fiction primarily consists of two types of writing: dialogue and description. If you aren’t transcribing what characters say, then you’re describing something: people, places, things, or actions.

Admittedly, novels can contain other types of writing: essays, for example, where the author or a character expounds on his or her opinions. But that kind of stuff should be used sparingly—some might say not at all—so dialogue and description are by far the main components of prose fiction.

Stories, Not Lists

Teaching our class at Clarion West, Lucius Shepard said several times that he approached description as “a little story.” (Lucius writes gorgeous description; I encourage you to read as much as his work as you can, and learn from a master.) After reflecting on what Lucius said, as well as on the thoughts of numerous other writers, I’ve come to the following formulation:


A descriptive passage is the story of a character’s encounter with a person, place, or thing.

Feel free to memorize that or have it tattooed on your forearm. Print it in 48-point type and hang it above your desk. The formulation may seem simple, or even obvious, but it’s still a valuable statement to keep in mind…and every part of the statement is important.

First of all, a descriptive passage is a story (or at least it should be). Too often, writers describe things just by making lists of details. For example, when you want to describe a person, you may be tempted to list facial features, body type, clothing, and so on.

But that’s not how we actually experience other people. We don’t encounter people as static lists of characteristics, we encounter them in a temporal sequence of perceptions and resulting reactions: i.e. as a story.

Pay attention the next time you encounter someone, whether it’s seeing someone at a distance or close up. For example, if you spot somebody from a distance, you can’t see small details; however, you might notice brightly colored clothing or the way the person walks, and general things like tall/short, fat/thin, male/female, etc.

Or circumstances may prevent you from gathering such information. For example, I’m writing this on a cold winter’s day when people on the street are all bundled up. From a distance, some people are obviously male and others obviously female, but many are not obvious at all. That’s important to notice…and it’s important to figure out which details make the difference. Those are the telling details that you can use in your writing. If you can identify someone as female from half a mile away, what factors make it so? If another person’s gender is hard to tell even close up, what contributes to that effect? These are details to tuck away in your memory so that they’re available when you want to describe a character of a particular type.

Temporal Sequence

Lucius Shepard gave our class an assignment: whenever you enter a room, pay attention to what you notice and in what order. This is easier said than done; usually when you walk into a room, you notice several things in close succession, so quickly that they seem simultaneous.

But they aren’t simultaneous. Your consciousness has a very low bandwidth, and simultaneity is generally too difficult to manage. (It takes serious mental practice, for example, to take in both sight and sound at the same time. It’s possible, but we almost never operate in that mode.) Instead we time-slice our attention: first we may notice a sound, then a sight, then a smell, then another sight, then a touch, and so on. That’s how we actually perceive the world…and if you want to depict a realistic encounter, that’s how you must write the descriptive passage. (You may make the artistic decision not to pursue realism, and that’s a perfectly valid choice. Just be aware that you’re making it.)

The temporal sequence underlying an encounter also includes reactions: emotional, mental, and physical. When you step into a bakeshop, and the smell of fresh baking envelopes you, you react. You smile and you breathe in deeply. Perhaps you remember some bakeshop from your youth, or the smell of your grandmother baking pies. Maybe then you actively look around the shop in search of cherry pies like Grandma used to make. Instead, you see a teenage girl who’s looking at the clock as if she can’t wait to get off work…and you wonder what she’s got planned that’s so much better than inhaling the shop’s aroma. And so on.

Perception: smell. Reactions: breathe in deeply; remember Grandma; look around. Perception: girl looking at clock. Reactions: wonder what she’s got planned; philosophize about ignoring aroma. Perception: girl asks, “Can I help you?” Reactions: step forward; try to remember what you came in to buy; look around again to see if anything reminds you what you’re there for.

This illustrates how people actually experience their lives. You don’t experience the bakeshop as a list of details; you perceive a single detail, then you react (with emotions, thoughts, memories, and physical actions), which leads to more perceptions, which lead to more reactions, and so on—a temporal sequence of perceptions and resulting reactions.

Point of View

But there’s another layer to this. “A descriptive passage is the story of a character’s encounter…” Typically, the character is your viewpoint character and that character’s personal traits exert a strong influence on both perceptions and reactions. As I said in a previous posting, architects notice architecture, botanists notice plants, and police notice “suspicious behavior.” The background and agenda of a character will change the nature of your descriptive passages.

For example, how do you write the bakeshop description if the person walking in is a boy with a crush on the teenage girl? He’s entering the shop in the hope of seeing her. In all likelihood, he won’t even notice the smell; all he’ll notice is her.

Will he notice that she’s staring at the clock? It depends on what sort of boy he is. One sort will only look at her body; another will look at her face without thinking about her expression; another will wonder what she’s thinking, but will go off on a fantasy that she’s dreaming of him, not just wishing for her shift to be over. The boy may never notice the baked goods at all…in which case, your descriptive passage shouldn’t mention them either. If you’re describing this scene from the boy’s point of view, it will ring a distractingly false note if you deviate from his viewpoint.

(You might say, “But it’s important for my plot that readers know there’s a giant wedding cake on the counter.” If so, then you have to find a way to bring the cake to the boy’s attention, or else you have to tweak the boy’s personality so that he’s someone who would notice the cake. This isn’t rocket science—you could just start the scene with the girl in a backroom, so that when the boy enters, he has time to look around before she shows up.)

While I’m thinking of it, there’s another important point to note: personal factors influence what a character notices, but they don’t override all other considerations. Even the most love-besotted boy will notice if there’s a zebra standing at the checkout counter. The same goes for other blatant oddities. In real life, humans can be monumentally oblivious, but in fiction, we ought to assume that big unusual things will be noticed by anyone.

Time’s Up

That’s it for this post, but there’s more to be said about writing description. Next month, we’ll look at pacing and what I call “wordspace”. In the meantime, I’ll open the floor to your thoughts on description. Expound away!

Filed under For Novelists, learning to write, Uncategorized, writing life, writing process. You can also use this URL to trackback.

There are 5 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Joe Iriarte

    Great post. I don’t think of description as a particular strength of mine, and this gave me a way to look at it that I’d never encountered before. Thanks!

  2. 2. Eric C.

    I’m a big fan of this series, and today’s advice was another home run. It really opened my eyes. I was wasting opportunities to explore characters by not approaching descriptive passages the right way. I wrote more about this on my blog:

    http://www.eric-christensen.com/2012/01/25/writing-descriptive-passages-a-comment-on-the-latest-skill-list-project-post/

    Keep up the great work!

  3. 3. Rocky

    I have to say this series is the best regarding the process of writing fiction i have ever read.

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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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