This month I complete my short series of posts on how I write descriptive prose.
(Apologies for the lateness!)
If you’ve been reading them thus far, you’ll know how much I love reading well written and memorable description.
If you haven’t, you can read Part 1 and Part 2 to get the full story.
For my final post in the series, I discuss how to incorporate description in larger pieces of writing.
The key point to remember is this: story is everything.
I know I’ve mentioned previously how I love pausing to savour a good piece of description, but in truth, this is a rarity.
You shouldn’t let anything detract or distract from the story.
Description should be woven into narrative in such a way as to be practically invisible.
Well-written prose has a rhythm — one that is difficult to quantify, and one that, when done well, is barely noticed.
Most of the examples I quoted in Part 1 have their own rhythm.
They are easy to read, have an almost lyrical pace to them, and keep the story moving forward.
Rhythm doesn’t always have to flow, but it should suit the narrative.
For fast or disjointed scenes, the rhythm can be staccato-like — short, choppy impression.
Yet for languid or contemplative scenes, the writing can takes its time, weaving a lazy and luscious scene, fecund with the narrator’s observations.
(These, I’ll admit, are my favourite.)
Have a read aloud of how gloriously Thomas Hardy describes crow’s feet…
When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.
— Thomas Hardy, Far From the Madding Crowd
Hardy’s description is vivid — actually quaint, in a way — but the rhythm of the words and the sentence carry the reader forward into the story.
The reader isn’t jerked to a halt by an awkwardly worded image.
The only way to get the rhythm right is to read your writing out aloud, and adjust it until it sounds effortless to your ear.
All writers are, first and foremost, readers. Trust your ear.
Just remember, whatever else happens, the story must continue on.
The context of a piece of descriptive prose refers to whether or not it fits where it is.
Once again, the aim is to make the imagery blend into the surrounding action or dialogue or whatever your character is doing.
Nothing breaks the reader out of the story faster than a segment of ‘purple prose’ — that is, flowery description that’s been inserted unnecessarily into a scene.
In the middle of a fast paced getaway scene, for instance, the narrator is hardly likely to linger on the smell of roses.
Likewise, when describing a stroll through the English countryside, the narrator isn’t going to ponder the cut-throat world of playing the stock market.
Descriptions should match the context of the scene — short and sharp, or languid and detailed, or whatever.
Take a read of Graham Greene’s protagonist and narrator from The Quiet American…
I wasn’t aware of the moment when the bombs were released; then the gun chattered and the cockpit was full of the smell of cordite, and the weight was off my chest as we rose, and it was the stomach that fell away, spiralling down like a suicide to the ground we had left.
— Graham Greene, The Quiet American
Greene doesn’t describe the sky into which the protagonist is flying or the destruction from the bombs behind them.
He describes the smell of gunfire from the cockpit, the weight on the protagonist’s chest as the pilot pulls up from a dive and readies for the next.
That’s where the protagonist is — in the cockpit, on the crest of the next dive.
And with the description nestled in that context, the reader is right in the cockpit with him.
Context is a little easier to achieve than rhythm for your descriptions.
It’s a matter of reading it as part of the larger paragraph or scene, and determining whether or not it’s in the right place.
And, if it doesn’t fit anywhere at all, drop it.
These concepts for working description into larger narratives are in many ways similar — or interdependent, as I tend to think of them.
Voice, however, is by far the most important.
You can fudge your way around rhythm and context, but muck up voice and you will lose your reader.
When I speak of voice in this context, I am talking about the voice of the narrator or point-of-view character — whatever a character describes should fit the sorts of things that character would notice.
A Miss Marple-type character is unlikely to have experience of playing many computer games — and so any description from her point-of-view would be unlikely to reference Mario Brothers, for instance. (Sorry, that’s an appalling example!)
As a reader, nothing pulls me out of a story quicker than an anachronism or an analogy to something beyond the point-of-view character’s experience.
But voice also means the language of the prose itself — it should suit the character in focus.
A homeless teenager, escaped from an abusive home and under-educated, is probably not going to wax lyrical in the language of Oscar Wilde — his descriptions are more likely to be curt, raw, utilitarian.
Douglas Adams was a master of voice. This passage, from the point-of-view of a horse, is perfect…
The horse walked with a patient, uncomplaining gait. It had long grown used to being wherever it was put, but for once it felt it didn’t mind this. Here, it thought, was a pleasant field. Here was grass. Here was a hedge it could look at. There was enough space that it could go for a trot later on if it felt the urge.
— Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
The description is extremely simple, but then so, purportedly, are the horse’s thoughts — the description doesn’t linger on the colour of the grass or the field’s dimensions or much at all really, except for what’s right in front of the horse.
The context may be a little disjointed, the rhythm off-beat. But it’s a perfect match for that character’s voice.
The only way to perfect this technique is to spend time with your character, immerse yourself in their world, listen for their voice.
The goal here, ultimately, is to weave the descriptions you’ve worked hard to create into your story’s narrative — especially if you’ve used the guidelines from Part 2 to build truly memorable ones.
The end result should be an effortless flow of story (even though we both know how hard you worked to make it appear so).
But through it all, it’s important to remember, as I stated categorically at the start: story is everything.
If your story calls for it, by all means, break any or all of these guidelines — break them hard if needs be. Most readers will forgive a story that is short on description, as long as the story is compelling.
I personally feel descriptive prose is what makes stories memorable — those are the moments I want to relive, again and again.
Good luck with you own endeavours to create something spectacular. Let me know how you go.
All images from Pixabay
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