Another Look At Descriptions

by Miko Johnston

In my contributions to this blog, I’ve written about descriptions several times. Describing, or as Jackie likes to say, illustrating in our writing has always presented a challenge to me. Part of it is how much? and is this necessary? There’s also how well…? – am I using fresh word pairings and metaphors that impress, not impede? Will readers not only ‘see’ it, but believe it?

All writing needs description to bring the story to life, but contemporary fiction usually depends on what we see around us. Science fiction, fantasy and, to a lesser extent, alt-reality requires more description as the reader can’t assume anything in a newly created world. So does the procedures of a character with an unusual or highly technical occupation, or day to day life in historical fiction to avoid anachronisms.

Writing historical fiction, as I do, requires a great deal of research, not only of history but images that represent the time. Clothing, hairstyles, machinery and tools, art and architecture infuse the story with the flavor of authenticity. In managing the word count, one picture can truly be worth a thousand words – if you find the right words.

I faced an insurmountable challenge in my latest novel. I wanted a character to wear a dress I’d seen illustrated in a period catalogue, a flamboyant style from the early 1920s. Today I’d describe it as having a side hooped (pannier) skirt with rolls of fabric resembling vertical soda can stackers hanging from each hip. However, that would not be time-appropriate for the era I write in and I couldn’t come up with a better way to depict the dress. It forced me to change her garment into something equally ridiculous but more describable, something Little Bo Peep might have worn.

That wasn’t the first time I’ve had trouble describing something in a way that a reader could visualize it. I envy writers who have that knack. I recently read a piece by Eric Asimov, who writes the Wine column for the New York Times, describing the ideal corkscrew, sometimes referred to as a waiter’s friend. He writes:

“It’s essentially a knifelike handle with a spiral worm for inserting into the cork, a double-hinged fulcrum for resistance and a small, folding blade for cutting the foil that protects the cork.”

Brilliantly descriptive and clear. You can not only see it, but see how it’s used.

Another challenge is trying to describe a situation that many have gone through; for example, pregnancy and labor. If you’ve given birth, you would probably rely on your personal recollections. If not, you’d research what others have endured, like I did. Either way, some readers will tell you that’s not what they experienced. In my first literary pregnancy, I was so concerned about the birth that I left that scene ‘off the page’; my character leaves town a month before her due date and returns with babe in arms.

Now several of my characters have gone through pregnancy and childbirth. I’ve gotten more controversial feedback on that subject than any other, and always from mothers. Certain suggestions, such as those little moments you could never envision unless you were ‘there’, helped. Other comments were less beneficial, for although there is much commonality in the experience, little of it is universal. “That’s not how it was for me,” they’d say, and I’d tell them “Okay, but that’s how it was for my character.”

*          *          *

As I’ve recently finished my fourth novel in a series, I’ve reviewed the manuscript multiple times and also reread sections of the earlier books. In doing so I learned something about my method of describing. The more important an element is, the more I’ll usually describe it. For instance, in my second book, my character meets a family that will play a prominent role in the rest of the series. It’s my young protagonist’s first impression of them, so I devote at least a full paragraph to the description of each person, I’ve augmented the descriptions as time passed to show how they’ve changed with age. Minor characters, such as the housekeeper, merit a phrase, enough to picture the woman when she returns later in the story. Thanks to Gayle’s tutelage, I’ve learned a title – waiter, shopkeeper – often suffices for ‘walk-on’ characters, though I might include a glimpse to set the scene, such as the wizened mother-in-law of a black marketeer, opulent earrings hanging from her lobes like chandeliers.

The character’s perspective also plays a role. My heroine, Lala, is introduced as a child, “almost eight”, who grew up poor. Her thoughts and observations had to be filtered by her age and experience, which is why it took me weeks to come up with a way for her to ‘describe’ a terrazzo floor (…like flat pebbles floating in a sea of cream). As she matured, so did her perceptions and understanding of human nature. Whatever captures her interest, or she feels passionate about, will inspire a more detailed description.

I approach themes in the same way. In my most recent novel, I chose to represent the political and social turmoil of post-WWI Europe with an image I found in my research. Lala, now married with child, observes it while stuck in traffic:

She perused the art work, most of it propaganda celebrating the recent wave of Communist Party member assassinations in Germany. One placard illustrated a macabre street scene in Hungary, judging by the uniforms worn by a line of soldiers hanging from gallows. Wives and children wept at the dead men’s feet while, standing in the middle of the road, a Bolshevik in uniform observed the carnage with a haughty air of satisfaction. The caption read, Erzet Harcoltunk? – ‘This is what we fought for?’…The artist had placed the smug-looking Bolshevik in the foreground, hands on hips, an unkempt uniform wrapped around his fat middle. Skinny legs stuffed into unpolished boots. Thin arms as well, implying physical weakness…Then she noticed the slight alteration of the Bolshevik’s cap, a subtle nod to a trait he shared with many of the political assassination victims.

The gold star affixed above the brim did not have five points, but six.

Rather than rely on the headlines of the day, I chose to let the reader “see” what she’s describing and understand the meaning behind the images.

This method works for me. What techniques do you rely on to get the right balance of description and imagery in your writing?

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of the historical fiction saga A PETAL IN THE WIND, as well as a contributor to anthologies, including LAst Exit to Murder. She has recently completed the fourth book in her series. Miko lives in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

15 thoughts on “Another Look At Descriptions”

  1. I am left breathless at the depth of your research to solve your dilemmas – well done! Luckily, like many, many writers I am able to vividly visualize my scenes and characters in full color and various settings, which is great fun. Congrats on finishing your fourth novel.

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  2. Thanks, Jill. Like you, I can visualize my scenes very well. It’s getting that image translated into words that pop on the page that challenges me, and I expect, many other writers.

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  3. Great article. I struggle with descriptions too in my writing. Trying to find the right word that may add complexity, yet not so out there that I lose the reader. Well stated with some food for thought.

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  4. Thanks, Heather. It is a delicate balance, especially considering how readers differ in their taste for description. Some like a lot of detail, while others prefer just enough to sketch out a scene. I’ve heard readers swoon over phrasings that make me cringe. Ultimately we must please ourselves, then hopefully our readers.

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  5. A well-written post! (Just like your historical fiction books). I find the more I read in a particular genre, the (slightly) easier descriptive words come to mind when writing. Of course some times well known words tantilize my brain just out of reach for hours. I usually end up using something else and maybe coming back to it. Your books are rich in imagery, which shows how much time and energy you devote to research and gettining it right.

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  6. Thanks, Jackie, for your kind words. You inspired the concept of illustrating with words rather than describing, which refocused my view on the subject. However, it frustrates me when the right words fail to materialize in my brain to ‘illustrate’ what I’m seeing. I wonder if other writers feel that way.

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  7. Description is definitely important in a story, and I really like the way you describe how you come up with yours. Mine vary depending on how important a person or place is in my story, but it’s always a challenge coming up with what hopefully works best.

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  8. So true, Linda. Apparently I’m not the only one who finds description challenging, but then again, if it were easy, everyone would be a writer : )

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  9. I find description the most challenging part of writing, especially for setting. I follow the “less is more”concept. Lengthy descriptions take me out of the story, so I assume the same holds true for many readers. I like to spread my descriptions throughout the story.

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  10. I agree with you on both points, Maggie. I won’t name the person, but one Pulitzer Prize-winning author writes prose that dazzles me to the point of distraction.

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  11. Excellent deep-dive into description, Miko!
    A lot to think about, especially why some descriptions in some novels do not bring me in, but sometimes send me away. Especially, if I don’t have any of my own experiences, remembrances, TV shows I’ve seen, oral histories I’ve heard to help me grab on to the description particulars. See what’s in the author’s mind. Especially hard with Fantasy, and current day Sci-Fi. I’m pondering…definitely a good thing.

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  12. Excellent point, Madeline. You’d think that the more unfamiliar we are with a subject or place, the more we’d need or want to know. However, if the description isn’t handled in a way that captures the reader’s interest, we’ll never get drawn into the story. On the other hand, if the details fascinate us, we can’t get enough.

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  13. I get very frustrated when reading an historical novel – especially one set in a foreign country – when the adjectives used and tone of the description slip into modern idioms. But your deep research really shows in your writing, Miko. Your descriptions are not only rich, and evocative – but so authentic, so the reader becomes lost in that other world you have shared with us. Thank you. Great post.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words, Rosemary, though I could say the same about your Lottie Topaz series. Readers of historical fiction want to be immersed in the period – it’s half the fun of reading the genre.

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