Description & Details and Figurative Language
Description and Details
I cut a lot of description out of my novels. I will stop reading a short story or a novel if it begins with too much description, too much information, or too much exposition. For me, this includes any elaborate set-up, a lot of character description, scene setting, all the connecting business. As Elmore Leonard says: “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things … You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.”
Of course, there should be some detail and some description. The idea is a small amount of just the right kind of detail, particular detail. Sarah Waters explains: “A huge amount of information about character and backstory can be conveyed through small detail.” And I like Dylan Landis’s take on Jim Krusoe’s concept of enabling details, which she describes this way: “the one or two quirky, often out-of-place details that let the reader instantly visualize the entire person or setting.”
Fiction is not life—even if the goal of fiction, for some, is to be life-like or realistic. As Andy Devine says: “Writing the word chair does not create a chair that somebody can sit in.”
Still, the common advice for description is helpful. Description should be made up of specific, concrete details. The description should fit the tone and pace of the piece of fiction. A novel with a slower pace (for whatever reason) can have more baroque and detailed description. A novel with a faster pace needs to work its description and detail into its sentences in smaller bits. These details should give the reader character and setting and place and time—mostly without the reader noticing. The details must be concrete enough without drawing attention to themselves in a way that distracts the reader from the illusion of the fiction.
The details and the description are there at the service of the fiction. Hilary Mantel has a nice way of saying this: “If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.”
Here is one of the great things about being a fiction writer: The fiction writer can choose details from anything in the world or make something else up. The range is the imagination and these choices are part of what make one fiction writer distinctive from another. The details should not only be specific things, they should also be specific to the particular writer.
When I think about description and details, I can’t help but think about studies of natural memory, particularly in relation to extraordinary events. We all have these memories—painful or shocking or exhilarating—in which our senses are heightened. It is how Proust opens that long novel of his, with a kind of heightened, detailed memory.
Here’s something that begins with a painful memory, but is mostly a reconstruction, its details mostly made up: I was a kid riding my 10-speed home. I made the rolling turn onto the street where I lived when a car rolled through its stop sign and sent me wide into the curb. My front wheel hit the curb, bent, and then folded, which launched me into the air. It felt strange and exhilarating to be flying through the air with my arms out in front of me. When I landed, the grass felt cool and fresh, the dirt crumbly and soft. The two bones in my left arm made a crisp snap and then my left arm felt rubbery. My body made a dent in the ground. My skin burned where the dirt and rocks tore through it as I slid along the ground. I couldn’t lift my left arm, but I felt alive.
The idea here is specific, concrete details that use different senses. Also, when I’m trying to render a scene like that, I’m looking at it in my mind. I focus on the object (or the scene), which is surrounded by darkness, and, if I look hard enough, eventually other details begin to reveal themselves. Maybe I remember how I smelled iron or tasted salt from all the blood. Maybe I remember the way my body vibrated with adrenaline and how it probably kept me from passing out. Whatever the description and details are, it is the fiction writer’s responsibility to provide the reader with this kind of concrete, rendered scene. There is an intensity to doing this that will keep the reader turning the pages.
What I just described is also what Raymond Carver calls the glimpse: “The short story writer’s task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. … And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given.”
All of this also makes me think of some recent memory research and a finding that suggests every memory is actually a reconstruction. When we remember, we don’t recall a whole event with every detail intact. We assemble each detail bit-by-bit until we fill-in the whole scene. This is also what the fiction writer does.
I rarely use explicit metaphors or similes. The problem for me is that metaphors take the reader away from the page—from one thing to another thing. It breaks the hallucination of the fiction. By not using internal metaphors, the idea is that the entire piece of fiction becomes a metaphor. Even the exchange between the reader and the writer becomes a kind of metaphor when that transformation happens.
But let’s say, for whatever reason, that metaphors (and similes) are necessary to the kind of fiction you want to write. Here’s the key to making sure the figurative language doesn’t seem obvious or false: Whatever metaphor or simile you choose should fit into the vocabulary of the fiction and the language should come from that same class of objects at play in the fiction. If it’s a story about a couple on a cruise trying to save their marriage, then the figurative language should come from ships, sailing, water, maybe even swimming or drowning or fish.
I don’t like metaphors or similes in fiction, but I do like metaphors and similes about fiction. I have always found it helpful to think of fiction, or parts of fiction, in other terms.
Here’s one: I used to be a long distance runner and I have always thought of writing like running—particularly the dailiness of it, but also the endurance required and the continual attempts to get better, get faster (training is like revision). I’m not the only one who sees the connections between running and writing. Joyce Carol Oates has famously compared writing to running: “The mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms.” And Haruki Murakami has written a book that suggests he wouldn’t be a writer if he weren’t a runner: “Most of what I know about writing fiction I learned by running every day.” Murakami notes that both undertakings are solitary, require extraordinary attention, self-discipline, a certain rhythm, and, of course, great endurance.
I can’t run anymore after three knee surgeries, but I still think about those times I didn’t want to run, how I made myself do it anyway and felt so much better afterward. Writing is the same way. Sometimes, I have to convince myself to sit down, but I almost always feel better after I have worked on whatever I am writing.
So there’s running and writing, but there are so many other metaphors for writing. If you don’t like thinking about running and writing, think about writing and mountain climbing or think about writing and self-mutilation or think about writing and an archeological dig. In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard finds similarities between “a line of words” and “a miner’s pick” (an act of discovery) and “a woodcarver’s gouge” (revision). There are also lots of architectural metaphors for writing—exploring a house, building a skyscraper, visiting the pyramids, etc.
There are a bunch of metaphors that involve water. F. Scott Fitzgerald said this: “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” Joyce Carol Oates likes to think of the novel as a river: “uniformly flowing, each passage concurrent with all the others.” And Nick Antosca has talked about writing and surfing: “The euphoric experience of frictionless momentum, of being propelled effortlessly forward while having to maintain perfect, precarious balance.” There’s something about the liquid descriptions that reminds the writer of the seamlessness of good fiction.
Here’s another one from Haruki Murakami: “Writing novels … is basically a kind of manual labor.” It is, in a way, especially the repetitive activity required and the way the work can accumulate. In an interview with The Paris Review, Lorrie Moore picks up this same idea, then makes a strange distinction: “A novel is a daily labor over a period of years. But a story can be like a mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend.” Despite this, I much prefer the novel.
In another book, I’ve talked about writing in terms of being a medium and channeling voices. I’ve also talked about the formal aspects of writing a novel in relation to the formal aspects of abstract expressionist paintings (helpful when needing to make seemingly disparate pieces of fiction form a whole book). Both of these figurations have helped me work through a difficult spot, see a connection I didn’t see, or simply find a way to keep writing or revising.
Years ago, people used to talk a lot about chaos theory: The idea that a bird can flap its wings in Japan and then there is a tornado in Kansas. People don’t talk about it so much anymore, but the figuration still works for thinking about fiction. The fiction logically builds from some unassuming detail to some great effect. Looking back, the narrative is inevitable (but surprising). The only way this happens in fiction is continually moving the narrative forward—making it bigger, deeper, more complex.
Let’s end with one from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” The idea is that the fiction is a delusion or a hallucination. The connection between schizophrenia and writing also suggests the loosened associations between words that can be made with a great attention to language. And there is a certain solipsism involved in both the world of the schizophrenic and the world of the fiction writer.