Description is a prospect that brings both glee and dread to the heart of the writer–often as some muddled combination of both these emotions. It’s often touted as the most superficial aspect of the writing process, and as a result, it’s viewed more as the icing on the cake than the actual flavor or core of the novel. Yet despite this, many authors can find it to be the most mind-numbing task in the process.
And while you slave away at the arduous and technically futile task of painting an image with words, the question is bound to come up. What the hell is the point of description?
I know that I wrestled with this in the early days of my writing “career” (If being an unpublished teenage storyteller counts for anything), I told myself that my writing style was vague. And at the time, it made sense. Much of what I had read up to that point were really the early stories in the Elric Cycle of Michael Moorecock, which were fast-paced tales that left much to the reader’s imagination when it came to description. Of course, I, in all my expertise, had mistaken my garbage, early prose as being my natural inheritance from the style of stories that I read. Naturally, this all changed when I got my hands on a certain novel called Eye of the World.
But before I digress, let me just summarize by saying that I very much adored Jordan’s detailed writing style in that book. But what was also strange was that I adored the Moorecock’s writing style at an equal level. But that got me thinking, if I enjoyed both of these techniques, then why would I bother drifting my own writing style further in the direction of the seemingly more laborious Jordan style than that of Moorecock?
Why bother with that when Moorecock’s style still had punch to it AND was quicker to get done?
Well, the answer to this came to me over the course of many realizations over the course of months. The first realization was that Moorecock’s style was not necessarily “simpler” than Jordan’s. You see, my early prose was really nothing like Moorecock’s. Michael, to my knowledge, used very specific words when he wanted to convey a certain theme, and he was very effective at modifying the length of his paragraphs whenever he saw the need. I, however, only pulled out whatever word worked for the situation, with my only criteria being the more “exotic” the word, the cooler things would sound.
I don’t need to tell you how childish this notion was.
To this day, in my opinion, the closest I’ve gotten to writing something similar to a Moorecock story is “A Disciple of Zarathustra”, which coincidentally, still does not match up to Moorecock.
My second realization was that description in stories tended to have only a few “core” objectives that it needed to fulfill in order to work in a story. And even then, there have been many occasions were these have been subverted. But here are the ones I view tend to crop up.
1. Description must give an idea of what the writer is trying to convey (this one is obvious)
2. It’s length must match the flow of the particular moment in a story where it is utilized
3. Words must be precise whenever possible
These right here are the components of the QuestingAuthor’s Do’s for Descriptions! (Better name pending)
What I’ve presented are guidelines that I found helpful and continue to find helpful in my attempts to establish my own unique style of writing prose. These are meant to serve as the foundations of your prose, but you must understand that the majority of a prose’s uniqueness comes from those flourishes and embellishments that we add to the way we write. While these are by no means technical, these embellishments are what allow us to inject a piece of ourselves into our stories.
These can come in the form of many things for many authors. For example, Clark Ashton Smith tends to have a preference for using outdated terms and esoteric language to give an alien feel to his stories. Robert E. Howard is fond of using metaphors that compare Conan to the likes of predatory beasts while in combat. Moorecock has this very particular thing in which he uses three one-sentence paragraphs in succession when he highlights a fight scene.
And then Elric loosed Stormbringer.
And then Stormbringer moaned in ecstasy.
And then they bathed in the blood of their assailants.
Something like that, and whenever I spot a paragraph structured in this fashion, it instantly reminds me of Michael Moorecock’s snappy writing. So as you can see, an author’s embellishments can range from a certain penchant with using specific literary devices down to the very structure of the sentences! It all depends on what aesthetically pleases you and how it fits with the kind of scene you want to describe.
Description can easily be seen as the most technical aspect of writing, and whether or not it is, is entirely up to you, but I will say one thing. Be it the most technical aspect of writing or not, the fact remains that there is still a very clear art in the way that one composes it.
So in essence, description’s technical purpose is to accomplish the guidelines which I mentioned above, but one would be mistaken to limit it to this. Description should also be viewed as a way to add your personality to the story.
So what are some of the prosy quirks that your favorite authors use? Have you picked up any of your own? Feel free to talk about it in the comments!
As always, this has been the QuestingAuthor. Keep writing, my friends.