Minor Rant on Descriptions

Recently, I offered my services as a reviewer.  I tend not to do that, because of how finicky I can be about reviewing material.  Perhaps I had a momentary lapse in sanity.  At any rate, I was given two novellas to read and, on an afternoon when I didn’t have much to do, I settled down with my Kindle to power through it even if it was something I wouldn’t normally read.

I quickly learned another reason why I don’t offer to be a reviewer.

When I come upon something I really don’t like, I tear it to shreds.  I’m an Orc on a rampage, Saphira on a feeding binge, and a severely pissed off Godzilla with a tree in his foot.

(This is also why I’m very quiet on critique sites.  It’s a miracle I can get enough points on Scribophile to post anything…which I actually haven’t done for a while.)

I immediately emailed my contact to describe the problem because no one wants a bad review of their work floating around on the internet.  And this wouldn’t be bad.  It would be downright nasty.

My biggest problem with the novellas involved my biggest pet peeve: utter lack of description.

When I say description, I don’t mean, “Mary’s house sat on the corner of Irving and Wash.  Next door to it was a bakery.”  That’s not description.  That’s set arrangement.

Description is, “Mary’s white Tudor home perched on the corner of Irving and Wash, just a stone’s throw from Dreaming Bakery.  When she stepped out onto her front porch in the early mornings, the air was scented with the delicate fragrance of cinnamon buns and coffee.”

The first example just tells you where things are.  The second puts you there.

That is the point of description, to bring a place alive to the reader.  A reader isn’t just meant to be an observer.  They aren’t Riker in that god-awful season finale of Enterprise.  A reader is a participant.  A reader can bring to mind what cinnamon buns and coffee smell like and, for a moment, they’re right there with Mary.  They’re own experiences make the scene a real place and, therefore, easier to imagine.

Good description goes a long way toward helping the reader have an emotional investment in the story.  Would readers have cared so much for Harry if Rowling hadn’t described so well his little cupboard under the stairs?  Would readers have given a damn about Bilbo going on an adventure if Tolkein hadn’t sketched his home and Hobbiton in detail?

Without description, a story happens in a void and characters are just words on a page.  Without description, it’s an essay and not a painting.  It’s an encyclopedia entry and not a vision.  And unless essays and encyclopedia entries are their thing, the reader isn’t going to be engaged and they aren’t going to care.

Readers need to care.  The heart and mind both must intersect in a story.  That is essential and is so fundamental that it turns me into a foaming-at-the-mouth nutcase when it’s not done well or at all.

This isn’t to say that I’m perfect.  I re-read my descriptions and feel as if they aren’t good enough.  And then I read the following and just want to jump off a cliff:

As for Jenny, this barren world stirred her strangely.  The moors stretched nearly a hundred miles, north to the ice-locked shores of the ocean; she knew every break in the granite landscape, every black peatbeck and every hollow where the heather grew thick in the short highlands summers; she had traced the tracks of hare and fox and kitmouse in three decades of winter snows.  Old Caerdinn, half-mad through poring over books and legends of the days of the Kings, could remember the time when the Kings had withdrawn their troops and their protection from the Winterlands to fight the wars for the lordship of the south; he had grown angry with her when she had spoken of the beauty she found in those wild, silvery fastnesses of rock and wind.  But sometimes his bitterness stirred in Jenny, when she worked to save the life of an ailing village child whose illness lay beyond her small skills and there was nothing in any book she had read that might tell her how to save that life; or when the Iceriders came raiding down over the floe-ice in the brutal winters, burning the barns that cost such labor to raise, and slaughtering the cattle that could only be bred up from such meager stock.  However, her own lack of power had taught her a curious appreciation for small joys and hard beauties and for the simple, changeless patterns of life and death.  It was nothing she could have explained; not to Caerdinn, nor to this boy, nor to anyone else.

Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

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