On Description: It Isn't Always Necessary by Vanessa Rueda
I would like to welcome guest writer, Vanessa Rueda. Enjoy!
Not all of us can be J.K. Rowling when it comes to world building, and we can’t all describe a room, a forest or house in minute and lyrical detail.
And that’s okay.
Description is another tool that writers have to our disposal to tell our story, and sometimes description isn’t essential to a particular story. When using a first-person narrator, the character may not be observant enough to notice the color of a desk and how the stains make it look like it was bought second hand, implying the owner doesn’t want to appear pretentious but still likes nice things. When using the third-person narrator, the point of view may not allow for certain details of the setting to be visible – a third-person narrator giving too much detail risks taking away their own credibility. The only type of narrator who has a responsibility to provide as much detail as possible, and is often expected to, is the omniscient narrator. Why wouldn’t an omniscient presence know every crevice of each street that characters walk on?
Every narrator type serves a different purpose, and each one tells a different type of story. And not every story requires heavy, minute description to drive the plot forward.
I was a bit conflicted about my inability to write “good” description for a long time, thinking that the fact that I could see my setting but not describe it made me an inadequate writer. I wondered who would read or even enjoy the stories I crafted if the description wasn’t beautiful enough that the reader saw themselves there, heard every sound and smelled every scent. But then I started reading Junot Diaz.
Moral controversies aside, Diaz is a good example of how minute description, giving the illusion that the narrator steps in front of the landscape before moving the story along, isn’t always necessary for the plot and to create a beautiful story. The short stories in Drown describe the settings as Yunior, the narrator and main character, sees them, with the dusty fields, crowded buses and tin-roof houses appearing as he sees them. With every detail, the reader understands who Yunior is, where he comes from and is drawn into the story.
If a Pulitzer-prize winning writer successfully describes as he goes and creates beautiful stories while he does it, surely it’s okay that I don’t rely on description to craft my stories.
Although description doesn’t always have to be a heavily used tool, every writer has a responsibility to set the scene and tell the reader where they are and what they are seeing. Setting the scene begins the suspense of disbelief that we ask of the reader while we tell the story, so we need to deliver a compelling scene in return. How we fulfill that responsibility, however, is nicely open to us, and that is when we rely on our strengths to tell the story. Why flagellate ourselves by letting the monkey on our shoulder tell us that we can describe a room better when the room won’t come up again in the plot? A few key details of what a living room looks like tell more about a character than dutifully telling the reader the exact color of the carpet.
When a passage starts or goes into the shape of a banister on a staircase or what the sky looks like outside only for the character to be on the phone the whole time, I find myself reading but not reading, because I’m not really participating and I’m being told what to observe. Something else I learned from Junot Diaz, that the reader has to play a role in the story too and filling in the gaps that the writer doesn’t provide is one way for a reader to be active. And we all know that an active reader is an engaged reader.
Beautiful and poetic description isn’t always necessary to carry on a plot, and while I’m not unappreciative of stories that tell me everything about a space down to the scratches on doorknob or the stains on a wall, I’m okay with not being the writer that produces that story. Maybe my story and my style are more about introspection, of describing a laugh so well that the reader can hear it and a sadness so intrusive that the reader can feel it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vanessa Rueda is a fiction writer based outside Washington, D.C. She has an MA in Creative Writing and Publishing from City University of London, and she works full-time for a business book publisher. Vanessa writes a weekly blog of fiction and novel excerpts, “From Doodle to Bestseller,” and you can connect with her on Twitter and on Instagram.