30 July 2010

Description is... a personal view

It is often stated that description can be brought to life by utilizing the five senses. Try this:

    Furniture was sparse, but elegant. A laden dresser stood in solitary splendour against one wall. Opposite was a stone-clad hearth, its nest of crackling logs spitting iridescent sparks everywhere but up the sooted chimney. In the centre of the narrow room was a rectangular dining table of polished walnut, its surface sheen more dazzling to the eye than the gleaming silver and crystal it supported. The unmistakable scent of roses wafted gently from an artistic arrangement surrounding the base of a candelabra waiting to be lit.

Sight, sound, smell. Three out of five isn’t a bad tally, but does it do anything for you? Note the two senses not mentioned – touch and taste – the most personal of the senses, and therein lies the clue.

Many new writers forget that description should be filtered through a character, and instead portray the vision they are carrying in their mind, the vision they would see if they were watching it materialise on a screen in front of them.

To describe a place or an object divorced from the person who is supposedly viewing it, is to insert a distance between the action on the page and the reader’s experience of it. It is to insert the Author and have the Author filtering all the action to the reader. To put it another way, it’s the difference between participating in a sport and being a spectator; if badly executed it can be the difference between participating and reading a newspaper report. Author, get off the page.

Let’s return to that block of description and consider it again. What person, what character, could be viewing that room? No domestic cleaner would describe it in such terms, no owner of the house used to its setting, no burglar with his mind only on what is worth stealing – each would have a different priority and so wouldn’t ‘see’ this particular description. We are all distracted by our own life’s events; they colour our perceptions, and personal perceptions colour what we see, how we interact with our surroundings.

So when you want to describe a space, or an object, consider first whose eyes are viewing it, then consider how they feel emotionally. It can make a big difference in the words the writer chooses, a big difference in the tone of the description.


Next: describing characters, and then we’ll marry a character to this room.

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