See me, feel me, touch me…sings Roger Daltrey of the Who, in the hit musical Tommy. The story is of a blind, deaf and dumb boy who becomes a master pinball player and the reluctant object of a religious cult. Maybe not the best plotted screenplay; maybe not the most wonderful lyrics, either, but the message that Daltrey belts out is a useful one for writers.
In Writing Skills projects four, five and six, we begin to look at description within writing, especially prose and poetry, examining how to use our senses and record what we see, hear, feel, taste and smell. As the course materials point out… although we are using words, we are stimulating pictures in a reader’s mind.
Creative Writing Students often find this one of the hardest things, especially as this aspect of writing comes so early in the course. I can’t blame them; they want to be able to jump in, feet first, and start creating something whole; making stories, screenplays or poems, working on plot, writing about action, developing their characters, saying important things to the reading world. They may be impatient that the first thing we ask of them is to describe. But have you ever read writing so vivid that you felt as if you were actually there? This is description that appeals to the senses — eyes, nose, ears, tongue or skin. The clue is in being specific. I call this ‘zoned in detail’.
Think back to the last thing you wanted to describe in your writing. A landscape, a neighbourhood, or something smaller; a room, a piece of furniture or an artefact. How did you describe this? Did you use any detail at all? Did you use too much?
Better to use the right details, of course, but knowing what the right details are is not an easy skill to acquire.
When you describe, take your time and, rather than concentrating on an overall picture, zone in and look at some small detail that can exemplify the whole. Recently, I needed to describe the two oak trees that are a legend in the county of Somerset. Locally called Mog and Magog, they can be found on a country path inside a small enclosure. I tried describing them directly, but it felt flat, so I skirted around this.
The oaks were almost leafless and white with age, and he was leaning into the further of them, his arms hugging the trunk, which was so broad it would have taken several of us to surround it completely. I rested my hand on the gnarled and weathered bark of the other tree. The day was warm, bees already buzzing in the foxgloves. A woodpecker rapped with furious persistence in the distance.
“Oh, listen,” I whispered.
I went for the sense of sight, but also touch and hearing, and conveying the image through a person’s actions. What I was trying to avoid was information overload. Readers cannot hold an infinite number of details in their mind at the same time. If I described everything about the trees, my readers would end up sensing none of it.
The strange truth is, the more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes…moving into close-up is absorbing. On the other hand, skimming over description loses the reader and results in a lacklustre narrative line. What readers want, and love the most, are the details of life as they know it and can recognise it. A writer who can recreate the ‘commonalities’ of life so that they appear fresh and new on the page will engage and entrance their writer. Samuel Johnson said, “The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.”
Zoned-in detail gives you the opportunity to use your descriptions to achieve other parts of the Craft of Writing. Good description will often also:
- Reveal and differentiate places and characters
- Enhance mood and atmosphere
- Heighten the reader’s identification with character
- Hint at clues to theme or outcome
- Suggest a larger picture or background information
- Deepen symbolism
- Add jokes and/or moments of depth
- Express the emotions of the narrator
- Add extra zing to the writing by bringing the five senses onto the page.
Looking back at the six lines of description I wrote about Mog and Magog, I wonder myself if I managed any of the above. I certainly didn’t attempt much description of the trees, although later, I do a little more, using dialogue. But, was there atmosphere? Did the narrator’s own feelings come across? Could you guess a little about the man hugging the tree? Were there hints of what might come later in the story? Was there any ‘zing’?
One thing is clear; we have all got to try. Avoiding description because you don’t think you’ll do it well is not an option – it is one of the building blocks of creative writing.
So, don’t be afraid of zoned-in detail – it makes all the difference – it is the complete opposite of writing huge swathes of description that skim over detail and bore the reader to sleep. By bearing in mind that you don’t have to describe the whole thing, and looking closely at the most interesting parts of the whole, the description is enhanced. The reader won’t want to see it all – that’s like being too close to the screen in the cinema.
Next time you need description, remember Tommy. See me, feel me, touch me, heal me… That’s a nice little memory jogger. Zone in with the five senses and heal your writing with vivid description.
Nina Milton. OCA Tutor and Assessor