The writing of fiction rests firmly on a triad of techniques – dialogue, narrative, and description. Of these, description has sometimes been given a bad name, yet without it, stories would take place in a vacuum, so I thought I would take a brief look at description this month.
Myself, I have no objection to long passages of description, provided they are well written. Think of the opening to Dickens’s Bleak House.
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of Heaven and earth.
(Bleak House, Ch.01)
Wonderful! Evocative. Memorable. And it continues for several more paragraphs. Who would want to sacrifice a word of it?
Indeed, most of the great novels of the nineteenth century abound in long descriptions, and as far as I know, no one objected to them then. Is the impatience with them now a symptom of the rushed nature of modern life? The demand for instant information, instant gratification, instant contact via mobile phones?
Whatever the reason, many readers nowadays will not tolerate description of more than a paragraph or two, and the modern writer who ignores it is courting trouble. Yet we must have description to flesh out the reality of our invented worlds, whether we set our stories in some present day location, in a recreated historic past, or in some imagined future or fantasy world.
What to do?
There are a number of ways round the problem, and I’m going to illustrate them from one of my own books, The Bookseller’s Tale.
Before giving examples, one point in particular is worth making – for description to engage the reader, to make the imagined world come to life, it is essential to employ all of the five senses, and not merely the sense of sight, although that is usually the dominant one. It would be too contrived to try to work every sense into every passage of description, but at some point we want to be able to hear, smell, taste, and touch the world of the novel, as well as to see it. If you think about novels whose world has really come alive for you, probably you will find this sensory engagement there somewhere, however fleeting and subtle.
There is no reason why a writer should not make use of straight description from time to time, so long as the lengthy passages of the past are avoided. Here’s one of mine:
It was slightly less noisy outside, but the flimsy walkway juddered under my feet from the movement of the great wheel driven by the force of the river. I made my way cautiously across to the far bank. But for that neat incision in William’s back, I could well believe that he had merely lost his balance here on the walkway and tumbled in.
The ground in the meadow was still spongy with water absorbed during the winter floods, and although it had been sunny, even hot, earlier in the day, clouds were beginning to gather, passing over the sun from time to time and setting shadows racing across the meadow grass, leaching the wild flowers of colour. I shivered. I had not thought to bring a cloak, never expecting rain, but I feared I might suffer a sousing before I was done. The scent of warm grass rose around me as I brushed through it, intensified by that expectant feel in the air, which sharpens all smells before a storm. The outlines of the willows on the river’s edge were clear cut, like ink lines on parchment.
(The Bookseller’s Tale, Ch.7)
That is fairly straightforward and easy. However, let’s think again about that triad of techniques: dialogue, narrative, and description. They are not mutually exclusive. For example, if a dialogue runs like this:
We would soon get very bored.
Equally, if a passage of narrative ran something like this: John did this, then he did that, then he did the other . . . we would also get very bored.
The skill lies in weaving the three together.
Dialogue works very much better if it is interwoven with some narrative, or it may be interwoven with description, or both narrative and description:
‘Truly, Jordain, I think so, but it was no more than a glimpse from the corner of my eye.’ I rubbed my hand over my face. My head was beginning to pound again, and I could not see quite as clearly as I should like.
‘He should be abed,’ Margaret said.
‘Soon.’ I lifted a hand to halt her, because she was rising to hustle Walter and Jordain away.
‘Tell me first, Jordain, how matters went with Mistress Farringdon and her daughter. Had they anything to say that might help us in all this tangle?’
He looked thoughtful. ‘Perhaps. Aye and nay.’
‘Don’t play the scholastic with me,’ I said, ‘I am too weary.’
‘Forgive me, I am not trying to be obscure.’ He pulled up a stool and sat down beside me, stretching his hands out to the fire. ‘Who would believe we have been hot for the last few days? Out there it feels as though February has returned. Sometimes I think our low-lying town caught in this web of water is not good for our health.’
Walter had retired to a far corner of the room and looked as though he was about to leave.
‘Come by the fire, man,’ I said impatiently. ‘You are part of all our schemes and our bafflement now.’
Walter brought over another stool and perched on it. Rowan, who had been stretched out with her rounded puppy stomach warming by the fire, sidled over and sat on his feet. He bent down and ran her silky ears through his fingers.
(The Bookseller’s Tale, Ch.08)
Dialogue is a wonderful way to bring characters to life, but a story cannot be all dialogue. If it needs to move forward in time, it is often necessary to use passages of narrative, but instead of bare narrative of events and actions, it is much more enjoyable and rewarding if it is woven together with some description:
A wooden walkway lay between the buildings and the river, with posts at regular intervals, from which ropes disappeared into the water. From these, I knew, slatted wooden cages were suspended, in which the newly flayed skins were tied, one above the other with spaces between, so that the water could flow over both surfaces, washing away any remaining fragments of flesh or loose hairs left from the first preliminary scraping.
I opened the door and ventured into the main workshop, trying not to breathe too deeply, but even so the stench of the skins and the sharp smell of the lime caught at the back of my throat and made me cough. One of the apprentices was stirring the skins soaking in the lime and water bath, contained in one of the enormous stone de-hairing tanks. He was standing on a stool and using a long pole like a giant broomstick. The other tank contained the skins which had been scraped and were receiving a second soaking to bleach them before the final dressing.
(The Bookseller’s Tale, Ch.04)
Now, I have to confess that I do not consciously set out to employ these techniques. I don’t say to myself, ‘I think I’ll throw a bit of description into this dialogue.’ Instead I suppose I have simply evolved this way of working as I have developed as a writer – almost unconsciously. However, looking analytically at what I do (wearing my editor’s hat instead of the creative writer’s hat), I see that this is how I write.
I think it is because I want to create the physical reality of the world in which my books take place. It is very solid and real to me, and I want to share that – the taste of an eel stew in seventeenth century Fenland, the sweet scent of a hay harvest or the choking fumes of parchment curing, the feeling of bitter cold in a Russian winter, the sound of the night offices sung in an abbey church, the shimmer of torches reflected in the dark, fast-flowing waters of the Thames.
So description will always remain an essential part of my fictional worlds. As they exist for me, so I want them to exist for my readers.
Till next time,