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Descriptive Fiction

by The Editor Company   


Perhaps you think the less said about descriptive writing the better; perhaps you are one of those who think there is no place for it in the short stories, and, yes, in the modern novels. It is true that the day of such long descriptions as some of even the most charming of Charles Dickens' has gone by; and happily too, for there is such a thing as folding a minor thought so deep in layers of words that the reader has neither the inclination nor the time to unwrap it. The modern tendency—and a good tendency it is, in the main—is ever toward the dramatic. There is a legitimate use of descriptive writing in modern fiction, nevertheless, and that use is worth some study.

In the first place, it is a very good rule, and a most important one, so far as artistry is concerned, to let impressions of people and scenery enter the story through the eyes or mind of some one of your characters. Of course the I-story, so-called, uses this kind of description without thought of observing such a rule. But in the more frequent story of the third person, the advisability of such delineation is too often overlooked.

There are several reasons for commending it: (1), you do not break off the thread of your story abruptly and awkwardly, to intrude an arbitrary description; (2),—in part a consequence of (1)—you keep the atmosphere—a very important observation; (3), the constant demand upon your characters to spend their own and their readers' time in action forbids that greatest of all horrors—a prosy and detailed catalogue. Although the nature of this method of description is such that it may be brought in easily in dialogue, it is by no means limited to that. An illustration may help to make this point clearer: "Patience noted, with an indulgent smile, that every one of the six jets of the chandelier was lighted, although his student lamp was blazing away at its bravest on the study table. She knew and sympathized with her father's delight in the feeling of festivity which a brilliantly lighted room imparts."

Then for a second important rule, set this down: unless you have something distinctive to redeem your description from flatness, leave it out altogether. To take a poor, overworked situation in nature, the sun never sets twice alike. But you might think, to read the average description, that it always "descended in a blaze of glory." Don't let your pictures be long to the great class of the commonplace. Give them a touch to set them apart from any other scenes described of men—or of women! The lesson has yet to be learned that the colors of hair and eyes of one's characters are usually non-essential— something to be brought in incidentally. What sets your particular character apart from the mob, is what you must not forget to put down—some trick of feature, some aspect of face, some noticeable mannerism. For example: "And both had those thick, level eyebrows which, without either arch or tapering ends, lend such an uncanny expression of experience to blue eyes."

Then turn to the manner of "grouping." Some writers seem to have the gift of grouping effectively. It is instinctive with them to insist upon the unity of their pictures. They know what to include, what to leave out, and what, above all, to set in the prominent position, that all the other elements may fall into their relative positions. But this is a faculty which may be acquired by careful training of the eye, and of the seeing mind. That putting of the important in its peculiar place is not only emphasis but unity. And, moreover, it need not be an object, as is usual in a picture proper; it may be a color harmony, a state of atmosphere. For instance, if you read that the "wind drove stinging particles of snow against his face; the pale electric lights winked coldly down at him; and, on either side, the rows of buildings cut bleakly into the gray sky," you feel a veritable shiver. Why? Because, in that scene, the writer has made you grasp the centralizing idea of icy coldness. It will be found a great help in this matter of unifying your impressions to remember the advice of all the rhetorics: "Do not change your viewpoint"—literal or metaphorical.

In the fourth place, in your word-painting, beware of attempting too much "poetry," too much strained simile, too much sentimentalizing. We must remember always that simile is for the purpose, primarily, of making the thought clear. Too many writers, old and young, seem possessed of the idea that simile is mere external adornment. In poetry, to a limited extent, that may be true; but seldom, if ever, is it true in prose. If your simile does not enable your reader to grasp more easily and more truly the content of your picture, it has failed in its use, and "what is not useful is not beautiful." An example of this: "The lake, curiously opaque in appearance, was heaped sluggishly, looking, under the bronzing touch of the low-lying sun, like roughened modeling clay." The sister-fault in this connection is sentimentality. True sentiment is never to be despised; but the sentimental investing of nature with personal attributes is a rank waste of emotional appeal. It awakens, in the mind of the average reader, a distrust of the sincerity of the writer; and in the self-contained mind it arouses a real disgust at such shallow or easily-spilt emotions. This is generally a fault of immaturity; but unfortunately, it sometimes lasts, and especially is this the case with women.

There is one kind of description to which the above rules do not wholly apply. That kind is the description vitally necessary to the progress of the plot, such as, to take the handiest example, the correct stage-setting for a detective story. The one great demand here is for clearness. Of course, there is always that last resort—a diagram—in detective stories. But even a diagram needs rational explanation. Better to be able to set forth fact after fact in logical, orderly fashion until the whole sequence stands out sharply, if not brilliantly, in the imagination of the reader. In order to help toward this lucidity, emphasis must be placed on all the important and distinguishing features. One must not be afraid to repeat, in instances of this kind, words, phrases, or even clauses, if such repetition contributes to the desired effect. Use simile here only when it will drive your meaning straight home, when it is manifestly superior to the more plodding, round-about method. Since the plot interest, in stories of this class, is as a rule the interest, the description need not be given through the medium of one of the actors, though there is no other reason for deviating from that very excellent rule. The following is a very simple illustration of this point: "In the dining-room wall next to the passageway into the kitchen, was set a good-sized cupboard. Its doors were of glass, and through them could be seen the rows of table china against what seemed to be a polished oak background. But it was known to one familiar with the house, that what appeared to be the oaken back of the cupboard were, in reality, wooden doors which swung outward on the kitchen side, thus making it possible for the housewife to reach down necessary articles from either room."

Now as regards the conclusion of the whole perplexing matter: Description is not the story, nor should it be allowed to encroach upon the story. But, on the other hand, do not make the grave mistake of ruling out most of such writing as non-essential. Suggestive description, fitly used, is something so precious that every reader, whether consciously or unconsciously, has felt and admitted its charm.