Sunday, March 17, 2013


My family hates it when I get really into a book, because I stop talking to them. I stop cooking for them. The dog goes unwalked, the mail languishes in the postbox, I forget to groom. I want to lose myself completely in the world the writer has created until the very last pages: reality is not allowed to intrude. Reading such books is a little bit like falling in love … or addiction.

Luckily for my family, I don’t come across too many addictive books. Most thrillers don’t thrill me, because I seek character development and description, which they don’t tend to provide. Literary books, which I gravitate toward, aren’t typically page turners. But I have recently devoured two thrilling literary books: The Age of Miracles, a novel by Karen Thompson Walker, and Jesus Land, a memoir by Julia Scheeres.

I finished Jesus Land yesterday, and as I turned the last page I flopped back on the sofa and couldn’t move for a few minutes. I had to give myself a period of stillness, a comma, between the world she’d created (in which I’d been thoroughly immersed) and my own life, which seemed very distant. And as I stared at the ceiling, I thought, what was it about that book that pulled me in so deeply? I was hooked right away, so it was something beyond plot or character, both of which take time to develop.

Both Walker and Scheeres are ridiculously talented, but one knack they share is vividness of description. They paint word-pictures in the reader’s mind, and that ability is the quickest way for an author to yank a person from his own quotidian reality into your narrative world. As Stephen King puts it in On Writing, specificity is the nearest we can get to actual telepathy.

Look—here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to be absolutely sure, but I think we do.  … We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room … except we are together. We’re close.

We’re having a meeting of the minds.

I sent you a table with a red cloth on it, a cage, a rabbit, and the number eight in blue ink. You got them all, especially that blue eight. We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy.

To succeed, this kind of telepathy requires descriptions that are concrete and sensual. “A blue sky” is generic; “a hazy blue sky with a hawk circling at the zenith” is vivid. King warns, however, that specificity is best in short bursts: we don’t need an elaborate description of the rabbit cage’s materials, or the breed of rabbit, or the dimensions of the room. This kind of “prissy attention to detail” does exactly the opposite of good specificity: it pulls the reader out of the story. A novel I read recently that I felt made this mistake was The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Author Rachel Joyce writes gorgeous descriptive passages, which I admired for their elegance, but which put me to sleep. When reading, I skimmed these paragraphs. When listening on audio, my mind wandered and I kept having to rewind.

My attention never faltered during Jesus Land or The Age of Miracles.

A swiftly slowing planet
From The Age of Miracles:

Christy Castaneda swanned past the library window — it was her birthday too, and not one but two balloons swayed from her delicate wrist, each one signed on the blank silver side in loopy, loving cursive. 

Eyewitnesses reported seeing a bearded man, dressed in robes, howling Scripture on the side of the road. According to their accounts, a station wagon approached from the west at approximately 8:25 p.m. Opinions varied about the speed of the vehicle at the time of impact, but all agreed about the way the man lunged into the path of the car, bent on suicide or miracle. At least six other cars had swerved successfully around him. Ours was the seventh.

Christy is not an important character, but having her full name gives the little anecdote a peculiar sense of truth. Ditto the exact time (8:25 p.m.) and direction of travel (west) in the car-accident scene, as well as the specific number of cars. Just as a liar makes his lie more believable by being precise, so a writer makes her fiction more believable. Such details can veer into the overdescription King warns against, except Walker limits herself to just a few key points, and the scene described is active enough to carry them.

Walker uses a few simple words to create a broad impression: Christy swans, her wrist is delicate, the writing is loopy cursive. These images triangulate to paint a picture that a lesser writer might take an entire paragraph to transmit. You only need a few pinpoints; if they are consistent (swan, delicate, cursive), the reader's imagination will fill in the rest.

The author and her brother David
From Jesus Land:

A group of girls, stuffed into cut-offs and tube tops, their eyes raccoonish with black eyeliner, were leaning against the shaded wall of the cement shack. They sucked on popsicles and cigarettes and jutted out their hips at the trucks and jacked-up Camaros that pulled in for gas.

Deb fries vegetables in beer batter for our supper. We eat wrapped in our towels in her tiny kitchen as the late-afternoon sun falls over the table, warming a handful of marigolds she’s stuck in a chipped-blue vase.

I get out of bed and open the bottom drawer of my desk. There, between the photographs of Lecka, polished seashell and a collection of plastic horses, I find the letter opener I got at a Christmas party gift swap a few years ago. The handle is engraved with Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” It’s metal with a pointed, knifelike tip, and it’s the closest thing I have to a weapon.

The first sentence is near-poetry in its use of internal rhyme, and crackles with staccato-like consonance: stuffed, cut-offs, shack, sucked, popsicle, jutted, truck, jacked. The stage props (cut-offs, tube tops, and Camaros) work together to tell us immediately we’re in the 1980s, without Scheeres having to spell it out. We also get an atmosphere of grimy sexuality.

In the brief description of dinner at Deb’s, we get loads of sensory information, but the action never stops: this is another key to good description. In Harold Fry, Joyce keeps stopping the action to tell us how beautiful the landscape is. But these scenes are static. Humans are animals, and animals react to movement; if you watch a dog or cat dozing, you’ll notice her snap to attention the instant something moves. Same thing with readers: they will get bored if too many words pass without movement. Scheeres couches her descriptions in people doing things; her writing remains dynamic.

The last paragraph, with the letter opener and the plastic horses, has haunted me since I read it. Scheeres does this a few times, juxtaposing an image of innocence, like the horse figurines, with an image of violence, like the letter opener. Instead of informing us that her innocence was stolen from her, Scheeres shows us with these symbolic (and highly specific) objects — and in doing so she makes us feel her fear and loss.

Notice the verbs used in these examples, too: things don’t just exist, they scoot, punch, stuff, suck, swan. I particularly love how “swan,” normally a noun, is used as a verb in the Walker example. You get a twofer with that one: both a sense of gliding, and a visual of the long-necked bird. British writers are particularly adept at turning nouns into descriptive verbs in this way: hooves thunder along a road, silk puddles at her feet, moonlight sieves through the hedgerows. Americans, more literal, have to work at this. When I write a first draft, my verbs are obvious and ordinary. In the rewrite, I take the time to search for more descriptive replacements. (Thank you, A good verb does the work of a dozen adjectives and adverbs.

Now, a challenge for my fellow writer-readers: if you’re reading a book now, or you have a favorite book you keep turning back to, flip it open and find a few descriptive phrases or passages. Think about what makes them work. Share one here if you like, or just write it down in your journal. When you turn back to your own work, see whether this increased attention to detail helps your creative process. I know it does mine.


  1. Confession time: I struggle with description. For one, there's the language issue. As an ESL writer, I can't come up with all these wonderful verbs you mention here simply because I don't know them. (This is where my wonderful critique partners [wink] come in to help me think of other ways to say things.) Second, I tend to describe in similar ways (my default are eyes, lips, hair, landscapes). I find myself thinking "Didn't I write a similar description in my other novel?" Ha, ha.

    "King warns, however, that specificity is best in short bursts."

    Like in everything else, balance is key. You're absolutely right when you say that over description can lose the reader (which is what happens with those 19th century novels!)

    I'll be back with my "homework" ;-)

    Excellent post!

  2. Good topic of discussion!

    I think, as writers, we have to find a happy balance. Don't ask me why the British pull it off so beautifully, but like you mentioned, Americans tend to struggle. I think too flowery of speech shows that the writer is working too hard to get his/her point across. Too little or bland description makes your book read like boring genre fiction (which doesn't mean that all genre fiction is boring, just that there are certain authors whose writing styles suffer from lack of creativity).

    I'm currently reading a nonfiction book about the German occupation of France. The language of the book is pretty plain and to the point so, unfortunately, I don't have a current example for you. But here's one from a random book I grabbed and have read.

    "Cain had been awakened by the frenzied whinnying of a horse below his window in the street. Still half asleep, his head throbbing and barley soaked, he recalled the dream he'd had of the place called Buena Vista." (First sentences from Soul Catcher by Michael White)

    Although it's not my favorite novel, I wondered right away about this dream and the place called Buena Vista. And, goodness, I've never read anyone else use "barley soaked" to refer to a hangover!


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