Today we’ll examine something I think Ethan Canin does well: description. Description is one of those things that is very hard to get right. I think this is because it is difficult to notice when someone has done a good job. Bad description jumps out; good description goes unnoticed.
Everyone notices an overwrought passage that contains strange similes and metaphors and goes on forever trying to paint as explicit a picture as possible. The story breaks to set the scene. This is a case of show-don’t-tell-itis. The reader ends up skimming to find the story and gets nothing out of all the work that went into the description. Or the reader that suffers through it gets bored.
For this reason, I’ll make the first rule of description: show as little as possible without sacrificing useful information. This is counter to what most of us have been taught, but one carefully chosen detail can tell the reader more than a whole page of useless ones.
Ed wore Reebok’s to the party. Does that detail tell us anything? Probably not. Tina picked up on Ed’s Saucony Kilkenny XC5 minimal running flats as soon as he entered the party. Does that tell us something? Maybe. Ed is a runner? Tina knows enough about running shoes to identify these? We’re getting somewhere now. This example isn’t great, because most people won’t be able to visualize the shoe. But you should see the point that describing because you feel you need to or that it makes the scene “more realistic” is not a noble goal. Describe with purpose.
This brings us to the second rule: make the details serve more than one purpose. Often people think of description as the way to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. It can serve many other purposes in addition to this and often multipurpose description keeps the story moving.
Here’s an example. Take something simple like describing snow (I’m in the middle of NE Snowpocalypse 2016). Someone who has show don’t tell ingrained in them might try to give every painstaking detail as accurately as possible. But this isn’t non-fiction; it’s literature. The same exact thing can be described in multiple ways, giving different moods.
Maybe the character is falling in love, so she sees the beauty in it. The sun hit the ice crystal dangling from the pine, breaking the light into a dozen shimmering rays. The gentle snowflakes danced among the light. Blah, blah, blah. As you see, you can use words like “shimmering,” “gentle,” “dance,” “light,” “sun,” etc to emphasize the joy of the character.
The same exact scene could be described by an angry character. Harsh light glared off the frozen surfaces. The snow plunged relentlessly and suffocated everything like an infinite, oppressive mask. Okay, so maybe that got a little depressive or melodramatic with words like “harsh,” “glare,” “plunge,” “suffocate,” “oppressive,” etc. But I merely wanted to illustrate a point. There isn’t one objectively accurate way to describe anything.
Now you see why good description is hard to spot. You don’t have alternate versions to compare it to, so you’ll read right over it and not realize the carefully chosen details. The details will evoke the right feeling, but you didn’t read a version that didn’t evoke those feelings to see how well it was done.
Obviously this can be taken too far, and you’ll start to produce abstract, experimental prose poetry. Striking the right balance is hard, so let’s examine how a pro handles it. Here’s a passage from For Kings and Planets by Ethan Canin. The main character was kissed by his best friend’s sister. Note how the description doesn’t come as a block. Details are woven in and out of thoughts and actions so that the story doesn’t stop.
He would leave Marshall reading a book on the porch and then set off rambling along the shoreline, not sharp in his thinking until he had passed two or three curves on the great spits of sand and the house had long ago vanished behind the dunes and the low stands of trees. She lived constantly in the center of his thoughts. He would try to think about his plans for the rest of the summer, but his eyes would conjure up her forthright gaze; he would try to listen to the clap and rumble of the surf, but would instead recall their conversation together on the porch, and then the kiss, and then in return her enigmatic scolding.
Note how the use of “clap” and “rumble” suggests a rough ocean, which imitates the turbulent emotions he feels. The curves of the shoreline mimics the winding thoughts in his head. The girl lives in the the center of his thoughts, and he stands in the center of a vast nothing.
Canin could have spent a page writing a description of the beach, and then continued with the story. We would have gotten a much more vivid picture in our minds, but that would have been boring. Instead, he chose a few sparse details of description that added to the mood, and then wove them into the action.
Here’s an early passage (pg 17) from Carry Me Across the Water. Many writers describe a ton of physical traits of their characters. Here we see a hyperfocus on one tiny detail that draws out characterization.
Walking up the front path to Jimmy’s building, Kleinman took a yarmulke from his back pocket and set it on his head. It wouldn’t stay in place: maybe God knew. Since boyhood, yarmulkes had never stayed—something about the shape of his cranium: an irreligious skull. He still had plenty of hair, though—thank his mother’s father for that. He laughed and pushed the yarmulke down on the crown again. He was trying to start off on the right foot with Claudine.
In that amount of space, we could have gotten a description of his size, hair color, age, body type, clothing, etc. But that would have given us much less information than focusing on the action of putting a yarmulke on.
First, it was in his pocket. He is putting it on to make an impression. This tells us he cares much more about what Claudine will think of him than wearing it. We see that he was raised Jewish, because he’s had the problem of keeping it on since boyhood. We see that he’s basically always been irreligious. He’s well-educated enough to know that hair genetics is passed through your mother’s father. He has the ability to laugh at himself as he fumbles with the yarmulke. Etc.
If you want to read more, I’d highly recommend Canin. His subtle use of description to create moods and characterization is excellent.