Confessions of a Serial Describer

It is November on the 50th parallel. The scrub White Spruce is still a vibrant green while the surrounding ferns have turned a rusty mocha. Bright lichen florets make the rocks stand out in bold contrast.
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It is late November. Where the hell is the snow? I can only truly enjoy Mexico if my friends at home are completely miserable.

Man, that was descriptive. Phew! Chills. Need a tissue?

Except the last part.

Let me reverse digress.

Setting, tone, pace, narrative arc, word choice, description, dialogue, exposition, themes and plot — all of these and more are at play in the creation of fiction.

It’s a lot for a small-brained lad to keep track of and yet I must! I have to admit that after twenty years of having product imagery, branding, price and audience as my guiding lights, I need to do some relearning.

Many writers, editors and readers today prefer a “leaner” kind of writing. This includes several key style considerations. One important factor is the interdiction of adverbs. Shoot them out of the air before they can land and defile your verbs with those filthy ly-suffixed words!

Adverb avoidance makes sense — no argument here. Let the verbs do the work.

Exposition or summarization is seen today in literary fiction as unnecessary and dated. A knowledgeable editor I know stresses the need to “show not tell”. At the same time, I’ve often read that many classic pieces of literature are filled with exposition and they are still loved today. Would those classics succeed if written now? Probably, but contemporary conventions can be powerful and I believe a writer needs to be both skilled and confident in their approach if they choose to buck these trends.

Note to self: don’t buck around with trends unless you have a good reason to do so.

SIDEBAR: I think there are some outliers here – the editor I referred to states that she personally is less inclined to enforce a hard “no exposition” rule. Additionally, my personal experience may indicate that not all regions are on the same wavelength when it comes to exposition. London literati may take a different view than their Vancouver cousins, for instance. Certainly, literature is more global than ever and regional idiosyncrasies are hard to prove, but my own anecdotal experience suggests some commonalities based on geography.

Furthermore, my editor friend highlights the fact that, “exposition is very much alive in genre fiction (romance, sci fi, fantasy, suspense thrillers). However, there’s no doubt that too much telling stops the pace of the story and causes the readers (who we are told these days have very short attention spans) to become less interested in reading on.”

Description is a story-telling tool that I use a lot. It is not a favoured structure by all. There are those who see it as simply “copyism” — the tree is green and the surrounding plants are brown. Big deal.

I get the point. Description stops the action and is a close relative of exposition in terms of not sufficiently trusting the reader to figure things out.

But. Yes, I have a but – a small one (God willing, it will continue so). I love to describe things that may be out of the experience of the reader. Or it may be that description can help to support a feeling or mood or to otherwise move the story along. The examples that follow are personal favourites: “Big Two-hearted River” and “Islands in the Stream” by Hemingway, and “Robinson Crusoe” and “Moby-Dick”, as well.

In the Nick Adams short story “Big Two-hearted River”, we are told exactly what the man eats; the types of trees in the forest and swamp; and the temperature of the water as Nick wades into the current to cast. Hemingway describes the way the grasshopper – used as bait – spits “tobacco juice” on the hook. All of these minute, intimate details put the reader in the place and time with the Nick Adams character and condition us to be curious to understand and empathize with him. “Why is he so sad?” is the thing that occurs to readers even as the detailed description continues to push us away from this central question.

In “Islands in the Stream” our dread is raised by the calm, clinical depiction of the sea, the waves, the colours of the water, the sky, and the sea bottom while the giant hammerhead shark bears down on a young boy who is oblivious; “goggle fishing” in the shallows. Thomas Hudson, the father, fumbles as he loads his rifle and sights on the shark’s fin, firing and missing — and each miss is described in excruciating detail. It raises the hair on my neck just writing about it!

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the ocean, Defoe’s numerous, lengthy, arcane descriptions of Crusoe’s fortifications and the architecture of his island home are famous examples of description. I loved every six-penny nail!

Last, I remember lying in bed at home, recuperating after a nose operation at about age thirteen. (As an air passage, it made a pretty good coat hook.) I had ordered Moby-Dick from the University of Manitoba Extension Library. The book arrived, wrapped in brown kraft paper and bound with butcher’s twine. A white sticker on the front read: “1.) Melville – Moby-Dick 2.) Young – A Boy at Leafs’ Camp”. Home early from work, my dad delivered it, coming into the warm bedroom, snow dusting his winter parka. He tossed the bundle on my bed. “Your books came in the mail,” he said. “How’s the schnase?”

See what I mean?

See three of my descriptive short stories on the outstanding Canadian e-zine, CommuterLit, edited by Nancy Kay Clark — one of the top five Nancy Clarks in all the land!

allfornow – Mitch

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

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3 thoughts on “Confessions of a Serial Describer

    1. Exactly. I have sometimes dumped the story cuz one of the back stories was way better. Nancy Kay Clark from CommuterLit sugg. writing back stories but not putting them in – jest let’em inform the characterization. Cool. (Prolly ev’body BUT ME already knows to do that!)

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