On Description in Fiction

Literature Writing


An interesting point pertaining to prose fiction style caught my attention in the second part of the interview “One Story, Many Voices” (read Part 1 here). Mantle editor Shaun Randol points out that In My Dreams, It Was Simpler doesn’t have a lot of description, eliciting varied reactions and defenses from the novel’s many authors.


One could argue that narration is description (of action, or events), but it seems to exist in a category separate from descriptions of sensory experiences, people, places, objects, or states of mind. Because narration is usually of past events, it is selective and skips details which have proven insignificant to the outcome of a story.


Fiction writing classes and books on creative writing certainly devote a fair amount of instruction on precise, felicitous ways of rendering the world in which the story happens, and contemporary readers have been known to take pleasure in such descriptive passages, the general taste running towards a balance between the unexpected and the apt. (Although I’m sure that many readers would also admit to skipping descriptive passages, as one of the interviewed authors does.)


Elmore Leonard famously devoted 3 (or 4) of his 10 Rules for Good Writing to speaking against description, reflecting his preference for plot- and dialogue-driven narrative. From this perspective, the problem with description is that it halts the forward momentum of the plot, freezes the scene, to give the narrator time to tell the reader what something looks, smells, tastes, sounds, or feels like. While something is being described, nothing else can happen in a story, and if something does, it can only be narrated once the description is completed. Many writers sidestep this problem by sneaking static description into the narration, e.g. showing what a character looks like while he’s doing something.


Indeed, static description seems better suited to contemporary lyric poetry, which tends to crystallize fleeting moods or moments to hold them up to the light for intense examination. Many contemporary short stories, American in particular, tend to veer closer to lyric poetry in their concentration on significant moments and evocation of mood.


In one of his Six Memos for the Next Millenium, Italo Calvino focuses on “Quickness,” pointing out that “the very first characteristic of a folktale is economy of expression.” Only that which is essential to understanding the plot, or to moving the plot forward, is narrated.


One thinks of the fables of Aesop, unencumbered by physical description, getting to the moral like a shot in the arm, or of Scheherazade coolly spinning tales to keep herself alive. Might she have escaped execution if she had slowed her tales down to describe the brocade on a princess’s gown? In these ancient stories, description is limited to an adjective or epithet, as in the “rosy-fingered dawn” of Homer.


Perhaps such economy is better suited to folk literature, which assumes a small, tightly knit readership that shares a single culture—the need to elaborate is unnecessary if the storyteller assumes that his listeners know what he’s talking about. As soon as one is aware of addressing people from a foreign culture, the explanatory impulse kicks in. For instance, the first Indian novels written in English in the late nineteenth century were handicapped by “an excess of ethnographic documentation and explanatory asides” (see Meenakshi Mukherjee’s  “Epic and Novel in India” in The Novel: History, Geography, and Culture) and were thus rejected by Indian readers, who found the descriptive interludes unnecessary, even alienating.


The practices of ethnography and anthropology presuppose a foreign culture which must be illuminated for readers from one’s own culture, which also necessitates thick description and elaboration. Thus one finds extensive description in books of science and travel—the scientist describing in the interest of close study and documentation, and the travel writer eager to communicate the unfamiliar to his own people. Even science can lead to fiction, though—the first descriptions of the New World by European conquistadors populated the land with magical wonders and mythical beasts.


Paradoxically, to read fiction without description is to enter a fixed world where things have a permanence and universality to them. Conversely, fiction laden with description acknowledges the heterogeneity of people’s experiences of reality—a pipe is not always the same kind of pipe, or a pipe at all.


Science and literature came together in the sibling fiction movements of realism and naturalism. Fiction writers applied the rigor of scientific observation to prose fiction in an effort to make literature represent life as accurately as possible. In The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, Milan Kundera points out that “prose” “signifies the concrete, everyday, corporeal nature of life,” suggesting that the novel, in breaking free from the versification of epics and narrative poetry, consigned itself to banality, though perhaps to surface the beauty and romance in such banality. In dealing with “insignificant” details of everyday life, a prose fiction writer elevates the banal to subjects worthy of attention and moves closer to an understanding of life and human nature.


In the same book, Kundera compares Honoré de Balzac and Henry Fielding, noting that although Fielding sought to free himself from the chains of plot and story by introducing philosophical digressions, he still adhered to the need for narrative momentum and unity, for which plot and story are ideally used, and he never stops to describe things. Startlingly, Kundera points out that the color of Tom Jones’s eyes is never told, and the London he moves in is never described. Balzac’s Paris, on the other hand, is meticulously rendered—“its squares have their names, its houses their color, its streets their smells and sounds.”


Kundera suggests that this development has to do with speed. From the 19th century onward, changes in human life and culture began to happen at an ever-increasing rate, owing perhaps to technological innovations. “Man began to understand that he was not going to die in the same world he had been born into,” and suddenly everything had to be described before it disappeared. Kundera calls description “compassion for the ephemeral; salvaging the perishable.”


Perhaps readers of this age feel this compassion more keenly, when the world moves at the speed of electricity and the culture of a mere decade ago can be labeled “classic.” Hence our delight in the frozen ephemeral, the crystallized moment. It’s a nice symmetry that a slow world demands quickness in fiction, while a fast world opts to preserve the fleeting. Perhaps our need for description in fiction is only the desire to stop moving.