The Devil in the Details
Photo by Craig Clevenger
Introduction: The Description Dilemma
Write with verbs and nouns. Show, don't tell. We all know the drill. So how do I write descriptions which, by their very definition, demand adjectives and adverbs? How do I show a woman in a red cocktail dress without simply telling the reader that she wore a red cocktail dress?
Knowing how to evoke images and sensations without derailing story flow marks the difference between Dan Brown, who requires a lengthy paragraph to describe a secondary character's entire wardrobe ensemble, versus Cormac McCarthy who can show us the end of the world in two lines:
“The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long sheer of light and then a series of low concussions.”
–Cormac McCarthy, The Road
What follows are some fundamental techniques for letting your reader visualize rather than visualizing for them. We'll achieve this by choosing only a few select details (in spite of the temptation to grab more) and pitting those details against each other, so their contrast creates a depth which cues the reader on filling in the rest. We'll end by experimenting with syntax and sentence structure first, then using modifiers second.
Filling in the Blanks: Slot Machine Memory
The purest way to convey emotion in a story is to elicit that emotion from your reader. Writing down a string of invective to convey anger pales in comparison to crafting a character whose treatment of—or treatment by—another character arouses genuine anger in the reader. What's the worst criticism you can level at a horror film? It wasn't scary. For a film to be a horror film, it needs to elicit the feeling of fear from a viewer. Comedy is very similar; a comedian isn't funny unless he makes the audience laugh.
Speaking of comedians, one of my favorite Mitch Hedberg lines goes something like, “I found this stuff that turns your toilet water blue. They're called blue popsicles... but you gotta eat a whole lot of ‘em.” At the punch line, “but you gotta eat a whole lot of ‘em,” our brains shift gears to the idea of him pissing blue into his toilet. No, it's not as funny when it's explained, which is why it's so frustrating when someone doesn't get a joke. The explanation sucks the wind out of it. A punch line is only funny when our brains fill in the blanks.
I refer to this reflexive filling in the blanks as slot machine memory, a metaphor for the way we fill in the spaces with our own images, fears, biases and whatnot from our imaginations. Slot machines themselves are wired to mete out wins at such intervals that the player's losses fall behind a mnemonic blind spot, so as to keep the player playing. Casinos make money by celebrating small wins that gloss over huge losses.
Memory lies. Our recollections are colored by distance, emotion, hindsight, nostalgia and a host of other things. Details of a water cooler story change according to their significance to the teller, not according to what actually happened. Slot machine memory makes our account of the cab driver more reckless, the ex more psychotic, the sex more spectacular and, of course, our Vegas wins bigger. In the absence of detail and the presence of passion, memory cedes to imagination. Good descriptions, like good jokes, make use of the reader's slot machine memory. With only a few select details, they conjure the rest from the reader's imagination to fill in the blanks. The first task in crafting good descriptions is knowing which details to choose.
Depth Perception: Conflict vs. Contrast
Conflict drives a story. Man versus Man, Man versus Nature, or Man versus Himself. However, conflict is all too often confused with combat, especially in the realm of reality television. I know someone who took part in a reality show a few years back. He was repeatedly called off camera by the director and told to turn the heat up, to "really create some conflict." The different personalities and odd settings were compelling on their own but that wasn't enough for the realm of television. There had to be friction, butting heads, harsh words exchanged. They say conflict when they mean combat.
I think of conflict as contrast instead of combat. The conflict of Man versus Man is only interesting if there is contrast between the two men. If they're virtually identical, then literal combat is the only way a scene with the two of them is going to be engaging (maybe). On the other hand, the greater the contrast between the two men, the more compelling the actual conflict, regardless of what form it takes.
What does conflict/contrast have to do with writing descriptive narrative? The notion of contrast plays out on every level of the story, starting with the core conflict of plot. Characters, settings, plot, descriptions, all the elements of fiction, become deeper if they work in contrast to each other. Let's use our vision as an analogy. We see in three dimensions because our eyes are offset from each other. The difference between the image our left eye sees versus what our right eye sees— the contrast— is what creates our perception of depth. I'm using a literal example of depth with respect to writing because the metaphor pans out very well. Depth is the result of the intersection of contrasting elements. Not necessarily total opposites, just different... different enough.
FADE IN: (We see a VILLAIN wearing a lab coat and an eye patch. He has a pronounced facial scar and a hunchbacked henchman in tow. He rubs his hands together, laughing maniacally.)
VILLAIN: Soon, the whole world will be mine!
CUE: thunder and lightning
Critics would deride this character as being two-dimensional, and rightly so. The lab coat, eye patch and scar don't contrast with each other, but instead fit together so nicely they form a cliché character, and clichés don't have depth. Compare the above with the likes of Hannibal Lecter, his eyes half-closed and as he smiles serenely to the music of Bach, though he'd mutilated two prison guards seconds earlier. His refined musical tastes and his capacity to be so touched by Bach's composition exist in sharp contrast to the violence he has committed. Then there's the psychotic Frank Booth, clutching a swatch from Dorothy's robe as he's moved to tears to Dorothy's crooning of Blue Velvet. These behaviors, both displays of genuine sensitivity and tenderness, run counter to the behaviors we've seen them exhibit previously, which gives these villains depth. They stop being simply villains and become human beings, possessing, displaying and acting upon a wide range of emotions. Because they are more real, they are all the more frightening. It's for this same reason that nursery rhymes turn up in horror movies so frequently. The sound of children singing or a music box in contrast with scenes of extreme gore is truly disturbing.
What does all of this talk of emotion, behavior and character building have to do with conveying the physicality of a person or setting in prose? One of Raymond Chandler's famous lines is Phillip Marlowe describing himself at a party as being as out of place as “a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.” The above image is powerful, immediate and stark (and not without a touch of humor). The first time I read that line, I had the most vivid image leap to mind. Can anyone guess what that may have been? Yes, there, in the back. What image do you think came to my mind?
Would that be a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake, Craig?
Absolutely correct. Wow...it's like you can read my mind. I don't know how you guys do it. Yes, that's what I pictured. Now, a writer who described a person or thing “as lovely as a slice of wedding cake” or “as menacing as a tarantula,” well, he might evoke something... maybe. The two combined, however, create a collision of images that carries great weight.
Ultimately, the writer is better off describing components of a character or setting which play against each other, rather than with each other. As opposed to the “shopping list” approach, the contrast of these details creates a much more inviting canvas for readers to fill with their own imaginations. Some examples:
“I wear a black suit and tie and a dirty white shirt. The clothes hang loose, as if borrowed.”
–Will Christopher Baer, Kiss Me, Judas
The black suit/tie combo runs in contrast to “clothes hang loose.”
“She has a scar at the edge of her mouth and disturbing eyes. She doesn't seem to blink...”
I like this one for its sheer simplicity. Baer takes two elements, Jude’s mouth and eyes, which we typically think of as related, but pits them against each other. First his narrator Poe offers up her scar, which has no explanation and so hints at her past. He then contrasts it with her eyes which Poe first tells us are disturbing, then shows us by saying “she doesn't seem to blink.” That first line and a half paint a very vivid picture and, while the reader learns other details later, the prose never stoops to giving us fashion catalogue copy.
“... bluesuits guarding the alley. Reporters, prowl cars, four jackets and ties packing twelve gauge pumps... Chaos: blood spray, bet slip/cash confetti. Phone tables dumped, a stampede: out the back door bookie fist fights.”
–James Ellroy, White Jazz
This is a little more straightforward and, yes, on the surface it's a list of things which play well together. Still, Ellroy has set up the cadence of the prose to be very clipped and rapid, so he's got the freedom to fire off a string of nouns and keep his syntax simple. Still, with only four discreet things—beat cops, plainclothes, squad cars, reporters—he almost instantly sets the stage for a gargantuan police-raid-as-media-circus, not to mention the nice contrast of “jackets and ties” versus “twelve gauge pumps.”
“I was stirring my brandy with a nail boys,
stirring my brandy with a nail.”
–Tom Waits, Get Behind the Mule
I've always loved that Waits line; a solid example of contrasting elements.
“... as I fell I saw troops on the march, fields afire and black cannons in the sun, riots in the alleys of Russia and messiahs in the dunes of eastern deserts, and one fallen angel after another pulling himself up onto the face of a new hour.”
–Steve Erickson, Tours of the Black Clock
A longer list this time but Erickson's string of images all play against each other and in an instant, he creates the sweep of history rushing through his narrator's brain.
“He's a middle aged man with flesh so thin and translucent it barely covers anything. The vague blue innards of his head hint at themselves like the meat in a Chinese dumpling...”
I think this one speaks for itself.
When Details Collide: Descriptions in the Driver's Seat
Let's start with an inventory of clothes and physical characteristics for a character that looks something like this (a not-so-vague resemblance to Baer's Jude):
Female; possibly part Asian; late-twenties; red cocktail dress, lots of jewelry, dark hair, military style boots and a large purse of heavy black leather.
First, let's knock out a rough, shopping-list description just to conquer the blank page:
She was a gorgeous Asian woman in her late twenties, wearing a slinky red cocktail dress with mismatched combat boots and a giant black purse like a doctor's medical bag... (noirish J. Crew catalogue copy continues ad nauseum).
The details which contrast the most here are the dress and the boots, with the bag trailing closely behind. We'll reduce it to those critical details, taking the liberty of cueing the reader with another adjective:
The woman was gorgeous, wearing a tight red cocktail dress and black combat boots.
The reader now knows they're in the presence of a beautiful woman to whom there's much more than meets the eye. She's neither a two-dimensional “hooker with a heart of gold” nor a cartoonish Lara Croft. There's something going on beneath the surface; she has depth. To write a description that is succinct but which conveys depth, it helps to choose details which play off each other instead of lining up one after another in a cooperative single file. Still, the above line is rather flat. It tells me about her, but doesn't show me.
Even after we create a subset of contrasting details which conveys depth and evokes images from the reader's own imagination, the syntax is still often a list of “tells.” My solution is to restructure your descriptions from noun lists with modifiers to active subject-verb sentences. If I'm describing a short order cook in the middle of a lunch rush, I might say something like:
Lou flung the burgers into their baskets, slapped the bell and shouted, “Order up!”
Pretty straightforward. A compound-complex sentence where Lou is the subject and flung, slapped and shouted are the verbs. Everything appears to be in order, as the sentence subject is performing the sentence verb, so it's in the active voice; the verbs are most definitely transitive action verbs, acting upon their respective objects. But what does Lou look like?
He wore a dull, white apron and crisp white hat, and grease-stained checked trousers.
Okay, all valid descriptors. I've still got Lou (He) as the subject with wore as the verb (a transitive verb, but weaker than flung or slapped); apron, hat and trousers are the objects with the respective modifiers dull and white, crisp and white (forgive the repetition) and grease-stained. Nonetheless, the scant narrative goes from the frenzy of Lou sending out an order to a screeching halt, all because of the catalogue description. Let's take a cue from the first sentence and model the subsequent descriptive sentence after it. Instead of Lou being the subject, let's make his apron the subject:
His dull white apron...
Did what? How do I assign a verb to an inanimate object?
... draped from the curve of his massive belly.
Apron is the subject this time, with the action verb draped acting on Lou's belly, the object. A well-crafted description is as much about your sentence structure as it is your choice of adjectives and adverbs. Instead of telling the reader that Lou is wearing a white apron, I'm showing the reader the white apron covering Lou. We can also turn up the heat a notch or two and make the descriptors the subjects, giving them verbs. Instead of using trousers as the subject, modified by grease-stained, let's make the stains the subject:
Ancient grease stains covered his checked trousers.
In this case, we've changed the sentence structure from telling the reader he wore grease-stained trousers to showing grease stains covering his trousers (yeah, I threw in another modifier, so sue me).
Lou flung the burgers into their baskets, slapped the bell and shouted, “Order up!” He wore a dull, white apron and crisp white hat, and grease stained checked trousers.
Lou flung the burgers into their baskets, slapped the bell and shouted, “Order up!” His dull white apron draped from the curve of his massive belly and ancient grease stains covered his checked trousers.
And one more spit polish:
Lou's dull apron hung from the curve of his massive belly, barely concealing the ancient grease stains mottling his checked trousers. He flung the burgers into their baskets, slapped the bell and shouted, “Order up!”
The purest way to convey emotion in a story is to elicit that emotion from your reader. What comes from the deepest parts of their brains is going to be much more vivid that what you can spoon feed them. By selecting a subset of descriptive details from a larger body of options, we can frame our descriptions in such a way that we cue the reader's imagination in a desired direction. For this subset of details to work, they must have contrast with each other. This juxtaposition of images creates a depth that draws the reader in, whereas a shopping list of nouns and adjectives will not. Finally, once the details are chosen, we show them to the reader by writing them as the subjects of sentences with active verbs, rather than as modifiers or a string of verb objects: Gems throw light, silk ripples and cloth whispers.
A few other things to keep in mind:
We tend to favor visuals in descriptions, but sight is only one of our senses. Think about the others... What does the character's hair smell like? What about the texture of skin or clothes? What does his or her voice sound like? How about the sound of their shoes (spike heels; rugby cleats) as they cross the floor (antique Spanish tile; a hospital corridor)?
Ladies and Gentlemen, start your Underwoods.