Occasionally I’m writing a scene that begins to feel like a cheap sock-puppet show (no disrespect to PBS or any puppet-friendly network). The characters may argue or banter, but because they do nothing but speak, the narrative thins out and becomes less palpable. It takes on the one-dimensionality of a fast sketch, rather than the flesh-and-blood tangibility I had been going for. The people become talking heads, or, if they’re alone, they walk through a gray landscape where little of their world assumes a form.
Other times, I may read a book whose world is too tangible. Some authors catalogue every detail in a scene—the woodwork of an office doorway, the names of volumes on a lawyer’s shelf, the thirteen toys in a store window. The relentless listing overwhelms me and jumbles my sense of a scene, as if the characters were lost in a hoarder’s house. I’m guilty of this in my own writing sometimes, too.
The solution is a reasonable balance of description to create the impression of a scene. Here is the strategy that has helped me:
A narrow focus creates a broader canvas.
If you select one aspect of a setting and describe it pointedly, reader’s minds have an unconscious tendency to fill in the blank spots with their own details. For example, in my current work, I wrote a scene in which the main character enters a school office to appeal his suspension from his job:
Lunchtime vacated the classrooms near Felicity High’s entrance and skated all the students into the cafeteria. I parked the DeSoto down the street at Woolworth’s instead of the school lot, then headed for the front office. Ida’s [the school secretary] Royal typewriter rested massively on her desk in a slant of tired sun, unmanned. The machine’s carriage return, I remembered, sounded like an artillery shell socketing into the hull of a submarine. The memory elicited an unexpected longing in me, but that faded when I saw the envelope tucked next to it, marked with my name. Looking around as if I were reaching into a cash register, I tore it open and found a key that unlocked her desk drawer. Inside she had saved my month’s paycheck.
When I started this scene, my first instinct was to chomp right into the narrator’s surroundings with a description of the frosted-glass door, the blinds on the window, the dust motes on the air, the clutter on the secretary’s desk, and the coat rack blocking the view of the principal’s office. In the end, I added no more details except for an ink blotter and a long corridor to the boss’s office.
It was more challenging (and fun) to zero in on one object associated with that environment, the typewriter, and describe its unique qualities. I learned that as I deepened the focus on the machine’s sounds, its position in the light, even the feelings it inspires in the character, the presence of the office grew stronger around it—not because of any words I wrote, but because of my own imagination.
I think that’s the responsibility of a writer—to respect the reader enough to leave some of the story up to his or her personal creativity.
What kind of a descriptive writer are you—a sparse Hemingway or a rich Faulkner? Somewhere in between? As a reader, which kind of author do you prefer?
Anthony Otten has published stories in The Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wind. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. Still: The Journal has published an excerpt from his novel. He lives in Kentucky.
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