By Jason Hill (Contributor)
A few years ago, I sent a story to one of my faculty mentors in my MFA program. The story was fine, nothing exciting, and most of the feedback the mentor gave me was useful only within the context of the story itself. But a small note she made on the paper sticks with me to this day.
In one scene, where a character is having his blood drawn, I described the room where it happened and the technician taking the sample. I pointed out that the technician was black. It seemed germane at the time because the scene borrowed heavily from real life (I’d had a blood sample taken for a physical a month or two prior to writing the story). I was recounting what I saw and I wanted the reader to see the same thing. But the mentor, who was also African-American, questioned my choice. “Why mention this?” she asked. I had to think about it. Was it necessary to include the technician’s race? Not at all. It didn’t matter to the story or the scene.
The reason the mentor’s note has stayed with me this long has actually nothing to do with the race of that character or, really, race in fiction. I could have easily filed the decision to name the character’s race under the rubric of ‘description.’ We describe hair color, build, gestures and posture, eyes, etc. all the time in writing and we think that, most of the time, the reader needs or expects this. But in the case of my technician, physical description of the character had at least the potential to create unintentional expectations and reactions on the part of the reader; expectations and reactions that ran counter to my idea of what mattered in the scene. I began to look at all manner of physical description of characters and place with the mentor’s question in mind. “Why mention this?”
We assume that our readers need to see the world we are writing about in order to become immersed in it. I would not argue that this is wrong, but I would ask, how much and what kind of description is necessary to make that happen? In this, though not everything, I tend to err on the side of three of modern crime-novelist Elmore Leonard’s rules:
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Writers are often guilty of packing details of all kinds into a single paragraph (usually near the opening of a story or a scene) as a way of establishing control. This is almost always a no-no; a wall of details. The reader will scan it and move on, probably recalling some of the elements as the characters interact, but more likely having a vague impression that they fill in with their own vision.
The same is absolutely true of the characters themselves. The author really has very little control over how characters are imagined unless they have certain stand-out features or are otherwise indelible (Ahab, Daisy Buchanan, or the Handmaids in Atwood’s book). Virtually everyone imagines something different when they read “brown hair” or “strong jaw line” or “thin and graceful” and the piling on of useless detail becomes an effort to convince the reader to change their own conceptions (at 6’5”, “tall” means something very different to me than to someone who is 5’3”).
The problem is, as Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine polyglot, fictionist and essayist says in one of his stories, “I know all too well that such specifics are in fact vaguenesses.” If we are working with a character or place whose physical presence and appearance is crucial to a story (think Ahab and the Pequod in Moby-Dick, Kurtz and the jungle in Heart of Darkness, the street life of London in Mrs. Dalloway) description is a necessary element. Even then, descriptions should do more than disguise vagueness with specifics.
Let’s take a couple of examples.
From Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian:
- The kid looked at the man. His head was strangely narrow and his hair was plastered up with mud in a bizarre and primitive coiffeur. On his forehead were burned the letters H T and lower and almost between the eyes the letter F and these markings were splayed and garish as if the iron had been left too long. When he turned to look at the kid the kid could see that he had no ears.
This description works because it is giving the reader elements of the character they are not likely to imagine for themselves without contradicting anything they might already have in mind (notice how the hair is described but not by color). Striking, frightful elements are presented through description without stepping on the reader’s toes or introducing a wall of details. If you’re going to take the trouble to point out physical details of your characters, make sure the reader remembers them. And make sure they serve the story by telling us something more than just what someone or something looks like.
For instance, when William Gibson opens Neuromancer with the line “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” we get not only the visual of a flat-gray, but also immediate entry into the world of the story. And there’s this description by Denis Johnson in his short story “Two Men”:
- One [woman] just like those came through the door from that room and stood looking at us with her mascara blurred and her lipstick kissed away. She wore a skirt but not a blouse, just a white bra like someone in an undies ad in a teenage magazine.
In both Johnson’s and Gibson’s descriptions, we see more than just visual details. If the narrator and characters of Neuromancer see the sky as a dead television, it tells us as much about them as it does the sky. The woman in Johnson’s story is presented with details the reader is not likely to imagine for themselves (blurred mascara, smeared lipstick), but the description also serves because of what the reader is able to imagine after getting these details. Blue-eyes, or even ice-blue eyes or sea-blue eyes, don’t lead the reader – they simply present. But “lipstick kissed away” gives a strong visual image that both describes and conveys additional information about the character and the moment, just as the branded H T in McCarthy’s description provides visual detail and leads the reader to other conclusions.
Even if you just want to describe, the choice of words is paramount. After all, you as a writer are emphasizing to the reader. You are telling them ‘I’m taking the time to stop and describe this so you should pay attention.’ That means descriptors actually have to describe.
Take a look at how this simple description from the opening of Raymond Chandler’s short story “Trouble is My Business” makes use of commonly described elements (face, eyes) in a way that makes the reader notice them:
- Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same color.
Chandler can be guilty of a presenting a wall of physical details, especially in his novels, but this description does a lot. First, when Philip Marlowe talks to Anna we see “shiny black shoe buttons” looking at him and not just black eyes or even dark eyes. Similarly, “putty-faced” is more direct, more evocative than simply “round” or “fat.”
Obviously, we can’t escape simple descriptions and not every opportunity or need for description should follow these examples. But, undoubtedly, detailed descriptions should only be used to further some element of the narrative. If your story is set in an office, I need to see some images that I associate with offices. But why tell me how many cubes there are, or how they are arranged, or what the break-room smells like, or what the receptionist is wearing if it’s not going to add to the story? If, on the other hand, the cubes are a warren or a labyrinth and a character becomes lost in them, there is meaning on top of the description; if the receptionist in her crazy sweater is relevant to the character’s state of mind or to some plot or thematic detail, we need to see it and we need to see it in a way that guides us toward that understanding. Without those elements, description runs the risk of being useless details that barely touch the reader.
Jason Hill studies creative writing in the MFA program at Spalding University. He holds a BA in English from the University of Kentucky and an MA in Philosophy from the University of Connecticut. He has lived in Providence, Boston, Jersey City and Louisville. His current whereabouts are unknown.