Description is a funny thing in writing, it can boost a piece up to true greatness, or it can sink writing with its triviality.
Victorian writing always challenged me as a young reader. Paragraph upon paragraph of rolling moor left me forgetting Return of the Native’s plot. The dawdling on fashion sense and gossip culture left me wanting to toss Pride and Prejudice out with the summer break tide. My attention span tested by the story hidden within the description, I felt that adjectives sought to spite me.
Later thought on technical advances made me rethink my passionate dismissal of an era of literature, but I still find passages or pages wordy. Writing advice tends to point in one direction: get rid of the unnecessary. This idea is drilled so forcefully that some writers hesitate to describe, hesitate to set a story too formally, and often block description is deemed overly commercial – delegated to the lower echelons of writing society.
Have we forgotten the power of words to move us beyond the print and into the art? Have you ever had a great story told to you? I mean told in the classical oral tradition of the word. Storytelling is a craft and, in my eyes, a gift. It is difficult to tell a story that will captivate an audience, especially all at once when sitting in one room. Every great storytelling paints vivid pictures without visuals by crafting the story in a picture made through vocal intonation and lively description – a description that wraps the listener in the tale. When the reader is not swaddles by the story (and storyteller), the bough breaks.
A great story does not lack description, the story can’t be told without it. In my experience a story (no matter how mediocre) becomes finely crafted when I lose sight of the building blocks, when the description and history behind the story blend seamlessly into the telling, when I almost forget how I know what I do about the characters and the places living (or dying) in the story.
Telling a story involves both the story and the art of telling it. Just because I have a great idea doesn’t mean I have the best way of telling it, but some stories’ greatness transcend the flaws of their telling. Growing up, The Neverending Story felt this way: an epic story that rose up above poor (or poorly translated) turns of phrase. Watership Down sticks out in my mind as a story that excels in both aspects. Reading the news or daily shorts online, I seek investigative pieces that step out to pool both resources: good stories incorporating good craft.
Mitch Albom’s piece on writing is intended as a tool for journalists, but his points are well-taken considering he comes from a tradition that seeks to fit column inch-length. In the article he refers to setting the scene in a cinematic sense (by this I mean introducing characters through living and interacting in their environment), and painting a picture. He sums up with similar thoughts on writing:
“Always look for something in the room, or something that somebody says or something, that does your work for you.”
That’s great encouragement for how to show rather than tell, but also a great encouragement to set aside insecurities and describe.