“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
~Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Pocket Books, 2000. (Quote taken from Goodreads.)
Let me say up front that aside from a scary movie now and then in the past, before I got squeamish about such things, I am not a fan of the horror-writing man, or I should say I’m not a fan of the horrors about which he writes; but the man himself, I don’t know well enough to have anything against.
Can I Get A Kickback?
All that aside, unbeknownst to Mr. King (is that his real name?) as a writing instructor, recommended this book to so many of my Let’s Write! students, who actually went out and bought it, that I should rightly get some kind of kickback. Though I’m nerdy enough that all the kickback I need is my students buying a book I recommended to them (which means they actually listened to me), their reading it (no way!), and then (what?) they actually applied it to their writing? That’s all more than enough kickback for a weary writing teacher to recommend it all over again to the next class.
Under “I” For Index
This isn’t a book review for On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, but I just want to say the book is excellent in its reflections on writing and its teachings, except for the missing index at the back of the book which I keep complaining about, hoping against hope that King might come across one of my posts somewhere and get the idea to put out a new edition with an index, though I know indexes (indices?) are a lot of work, but oh so worthwhile to the writing student or teacher, so couldn’t he have hired someone to do the grunt work?
For example, if I had an index in my copy of the aforementioned book I could look up the aforementioned quote and give you the page number on which it can be found, but no, not even a Table of Contents, much less a index, and flipping and flapping through the pages, I’m sorry, but I haven’t found the page number. Sheesh!
The Craft of Writing?
King’s On Writing is a unique combination of important writing “tools” (his metaphor in the book, which he takes one by one from his “toolbox”) and of his own story (the memoir part). He reveals both the man as writer and the points he’s learned along the way. (I just wish he could find something on the lighter side to write his novels about, but….)
So today I’m here to talk about the above quote taken from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Nice title but considering King’s stories, I can’t help but wonder if the title would refer to the craft of writing or (hopefully, not) witchcraft.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
~ Stephen King
Simply put, Mr. King is reminding us not to list everything the narrator sees in our descriptions, but, to, instead, choose a few key details and let the reader’s mind fill in the blanks.
And along these lines, my two cents’ worth is this and King agrees: What you leave in, as well as what you leave out of your descriptions should characterize a person (a man, a woman, a child), a place (a room, the inside of a car, a city), or a thing (the outside of a house, a computer, a dress). “Characterize” meaning it tells us something about the person, place or thing which allows the reader to read between the lines, so to speak.
So This Hippie Was Building This Robot….
This idea of drawing pictures with just enough words applies to both fiction and nonfiction and is one I cover in my writing classes often, because how we handle details (or the lack thereof) affects the depth and richness of our writing.
In a book about artificial intelligence you might not think what we’ll call “strategic description” would apply. Au contraire, the more technical the writing the more important not to bore your reader. In Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era (by James Barrat, 2013, St. Martin’s Press), the author, Mr. Barrat, does a beautiful job of exactly what Mr. King (and I) recommend: Give readers enough to go on based on what the narrator sees, and make what you tell readers count, so they can picture the rest. After all, isn’t that the beauty of reading versus video?
Here’s an excerpt from Our Final Invention where Mr. Barrat, an investigative journalist, is visiting an artificial intelligence expert in order to conduct an interview for the book. As the writer arrives at the scientist’s house, Barrat says this:
“On a spring morning I found in his yard a weathered trampoline and a Honda minivan so abused it looked as if it had flown through an asteroid belt to get there. It bore the bumper sticker, ‘My child was inmate of the month at County Jail’.” (p.168)
What a perfect example of exactly what Stephen King advises us to do! Has not Mr. Barrat told us just what we need in order to fill in the blanks about what kind of scientist it is who works actively every day to create substitutes for human beings? Barrat then goes on in the paragraph to list a slew of animals that live in the house with the scientist and his daughter (some rabbits, a parrot, and two dogs).
Are we getting a picture of what this robotics guy is like? Barrat goes on:
“The professor met me at the door, having climbed out of bed at 11 a.m. after spending the night programming.” Barrat then proceeds to say the artificial intelligence expert looks like “the consummate hippie”. (p.168)
So a few lines and we know not only what the guy looks like, more or less, but we know a lot more about him, and a little about his family and his surroundings—and all in one paragraph. This is what I mean (and King agrees) by characterizing with your description without going on with long, boring laundry lists of every detail, in an attempt for your readers to get the point.
There Are Angels In The Details.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m crazy about Detail (capitalized because I love it so much)! Detail is my middle name when it comes to writing of any kind. But we have to make it work and not let it just sit there being cute. Description is not an ornament, otherwise known as filler; it should serve a purpose, justify its place in your writing, where every space a word takes up is valuable real estate.
In the above sample by James Barrat, he has started the description of the man he’s about to interview, but we readers will fill in the rest, using our own experiences and points of view as to whether or not we’ll like this guy.
That’s one thing Barrat didn’t tell us. He didn’t tell us how he feels about hippies or all those animals or Honda minivans or this man who may well be contributing to the destruction of all of us, directly or indirectly, as the title of Barrat’s book suggests (our Last Invention, get it?). As a reporter, Barrat’s just telling it as he (the narrator) sees it” and leaving it to us readers to make up our minds about the rest of it.
Now in fiction if you’re writing from a character’s point of view it tends to matter more how the character feels about what’s being described. If the narrator is a part of the story, his or her descriptions of people and things serve to characterize him or her as much as who or what is being described, because readers are seeing through the lens of the character’s own experience and point of view.
And speaking of that, here’s another example of description through narration and the lens of the character’s viewpoint, this time in fiction. Please pardon me if I use my own writing.
“Read My Book.”
In my novel Two Shores (in the process of being re-titled back to its original of The Archangel of Hamilton Beach), I practiced what I (and Stephen King) preach. Here are a few lines from the first paragraph of Chapter 2 of my novel, narrated by the main character at age six, just returning from his first day of kindergarten. The chapter is entitled “Escape to Hamilton Beach”:
“When Michael disappeared from my view, I sat down and ate part of the sandwich he’d made for me and drank some of the milk. The kitchen smelled like cigarettes. The garbage in the pail leaned against the wall and trailed up it. Some flies buzzed around. I wondered if they thought the yellow daisies in the faded wallpaper were real. I also wondered where Teresa—my mother—was, probably asleep in her bedroom, or drunk, or both.”
Now, if I do say so myself, I think Stephen King would be proud of me for my use of just enough detail to describe not only the kitchen through the eyes of this troubled six-year-old boy, but also just enough to tell my readers something of Danny, his life, his brother, his mother—in other words, to characterize all of it without giving every detail of what’s in front of Danny in this scene. Even if you hadn’t read Chapter 1 before Chapter 2, you’d have some idea of his family situation and his surroundings, and surroundings are important to ground your reader, so to speak (but that’s another post).
Get a Job!
I tell my Let’s Write! students, whatever you put down on the page, tell it to get a job! What kind of job, you ask? Well, for one is this characterization I’ve been going on about—using description to help the reader know more about and understand in more depth what you’re looking to convey with your writing.
Moving the story forward is another job of describing people, places, and things in ways that tell readers more than just what they look like. The above paragraph from my novel moves the story forward in that readers see this boy’s home is unkempt, his brother made him a sandwich and is gone, and mom lurks somewhere nearby, probably not in the best of moods.
And speaking of moods, another job which description should perform includes setting the mood (the above kitchen?) of the scene or even of the whole story. I’ll save more talk on the various jobs description should accomplish for another post.
A Dark And Lonely Night
Well, I’ve already gone on too long here or I’d go into the various ways of approaching description to suit Mr. King’s admonition, such as the use of simile, metaphor, dialogue, and others, but I don’t want to lose you (or put you to sleep).
But if you happen to run into Stephen King on a dark and lonely night, please tell him I said to give us a new edition of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, this time with an index? So instead of wasting time searching his book for what we know he said in there somewhere, we writers can use our time more productively searching our imaginations for just the right words to use in our beguiling descriptions, which the readers will then finish in their own minds.