A writer’s earliest literary impulse has always been to report what he sees in the world around him. In “Description,” he endeavors to portray the scene before his eyes; in “Narration,” he attempts to tell the story. These are two very important elements in writing a story.
Some of our favorite authors have praised parts of their success on having learned to write descriptive scenes and characters, but with lots of self-control.
Stephen King said, “In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.” And Elmore Leonard, an American novelist and screenwriter, said, “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.”
These remarks will save us from that “description-worship” which is a sort of literary influenza.
All art is selective in its action. Here again we can observe that principle. A writer chooses the most characteristic features to describe a battle, a landscape, or a mental agony. He must avoid enumeration of detail; otherwise he will not produce a description but a catalogue. The writer’s ultimate goal is to create an order of
things which he has seen, heard or felt, so that the reader has no difficulty in mentally reproducing the original picture.
Every description must be true to the point of view. Scottish author and poet, George MacDonald, never got tired of saying, “A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean.”
In one of my favorite paintings, Joseph Mallord William Turner (a watercolorist and landscape painter) painted an old warship as if it had no rigging. The warship was painted in its proper place in the ocean, of course, but the artist could not see it, and he refused to put it in his picture, as if, at the distance, it was not visible.
“When you see birds fly you do not see any feathers,” said W. M. Hunt in his Talk About Art, “you are not to draw reality, but reality as it appears to you.”
Let’s take an illustration from recent literature. Editors often complain—and rightly—that writers are not always careful in writing their descriptions. For example, in a recently published murder-mystery novel, the author describes a scene where the parents of four kids are seated at the kitchen table at night, and a stranger enters from the side door. The author is right in describing the stranger’s appearance and clothes, but he is at fault when he describes (in length) about the stranger’s feet, boots and socks. When we sit down in the evening, and someone comes in, we notice only the upper part of his body. If I describe the feet, daylight
enters at once, and the scene loses its nocturnal character.
To stand upon the banks of a river and call it a “silver thread,” is another form of the same error. A river may look like “silver thread” in a certain light, but not when one stands on its brink. In ordering such details to reproduce some famous event, you should proceed from “the near to the remote, and from the obvious to the obscure.”
Greek poet Homer describes a shield as smooth, beautiful, brazen and well hammered; that is, he gives the particulars in the order in which we observe them. Modern description is largely suggestive in type.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known to us as Dr. Seuss, said, “Words and pictures are yin and yang. Married, they produce a progeny more interesting than either parent.”
Clive Eric Cussler, an American adventure novelist, is a master of description simply because we are not conscious of his workmanship.
English novelist Charles Dickens took the trouble to enumerate the characteristics of his character, Mrs. Gamp, one by one; but he succeeded in presenting another character, Mrs. Fezziwig, by simply saying, “In came Mrs. Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile.” Robert Louis Stevenson, in a few masterful graphic touches, sets before us one of his creations. “An ivory-faced and silvery-haired old woman opened the door. She had an evil face, smoothed by hypocrisy, but her manners were excellent.”
This is descriptive power of the first order; and while servile imitation is highly reprehensible, one cannot give better advice than this: Study Stevenson’s method, from the blind man in Treasure Island to Kirstie in The Weir of Hermiston.
Narrative prose contains specific elements that spawns many topics and writing styles. For example’s sake, let’s choose the story.
Writer David Pryde sums up the whole matter in the following remarks: “Keeping the beginning and the end in view, we set out from the right starting place, and go straight towards the destination; we introduce no event that does not spring from the first cause and tend to the great effect; we make each detail a link joined to the one going before, and to the one coming after; we make, in fact, all the details into one entire chain, which we can take up as a whole, carry about with us, and retain as long as we please.”
How many elements does David Pryde refer to? Elements include plot, movement, unity, proportion, purpose, and climax. Space will not permit more than a glance at one or two. The plot of a story is “that intricate series of events that are to be unraveled, generally by unexpected means, at the end.”
We must have a story to tell. It is just here that mere rule is at its weakest. To conceive a plot, to perceive a mystery in life and weave it into a narrative—these are powers which no art can bestow. All attempts to teach plot construction are surely vanity and vexation of spirit.
Movement, proportion, and climax are capable of exposition and illustration—they are communicable elements of narrative art. An excited part of a story requires a brisk movement; as feeling rises higher, sentences become crisp and shorter. Shakespeare’s plays are admirable illustrations of this; witness Acts 1 and 2 in Macbeth. Suspense is often used to assist narrative movement. There is no music in a pause—but it renders great service in giving proper emphasis to music that goes before and comes after it. Similarly, suspense has power to heighten the effect of action; contrast and surprise are scarcely less powerful.
The law of proportion is an important factor in writing stories. It protests against introducing episodes or digressing into other parts of the story. Using too many details can also hinder the real progress of the narrative. How many stories have been spoiled just because the writer lazily lured himself onto a side road which leads nowhere! Rambling may be a delightful physical exercise, but in literature, it is an unpardonable sin. Climax requires that “the thought as it advances should rise in interest and importance with each successive step, until the culmination concentrates in itself, in some sense, the significance of all that has gone before.”