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In Search of Good Descriptions

Binoculars
I am reading The Red House by Mark Haddon.  I promise to give you a full review when I finish it. It is beautifully and creatively written. I have been captivated by his style. Haddon is a master of description. His book is about the families of two estranged siblings—a brother (Richard) and sister (Angela)—coming together for a week-long vacation in the Welsh countryside to reconnect after the death of their mother. At the beginning of the book Angela’s family is changing trains at which point her eight-year-old son, Benjy, throws a small wrench into things as they try to make the connection:

Halfway across the footbridge he remembered that he’d forgotten to pick up the metal thing. What metal thing? said Mum. The metal thing, he said, because he hadn’t given it a name. It was a hinge from a briefcase and later on Mum would call it a piece of rubbish but he loved the strength of the spring and the smell it left on his fingers.

Dad said, I’ll get it because when he was a child he kept a horse’s tooth in a Golden Virginia tobacco tin, and Mum said, For Christ’s Sake. But Dad came back carrying the metal thing with seconds to spare and gave it to Benjy and said, Guard it with your life.

I love this passage because I can imagine the sharp metallic scent of grease and brass and how the transference of the smell to a boy’s hands would seem exotic. It gives us a window on to the thoughts of a child. And as a father I would have probably gone back myself to retrieve the piece of junk for similar reasons—knowing how an insignificant object can become a talisman to an eight-year-old. Later when both families are together on a side excursion Angela seeks a little refuge and observes this scene:

Angela stayed in the car. She needed time away from Richard and she couldn’t imagine another two hundred feet improving the view. A young Indian woman was fighting an orange cagoule. A little farther away a man and two teenage boys were tinkering with an amateur rocket, three, four foot high, red nose cone, fins. The man knelt briefly beside it then stepped back and…Jesus Christ. A fizz like Velcro and the thing just vanished upward. The boys whooped and waited and it simply didn’t come down. They swiveled, scanning the distance. Carried off by the wind, no doubt, but something magical about it still, a story for later. She looked back up the hill. Her family were dots.

Our lives are peppered with drama but only about, I don’t know, maybe 20 percent of the time—maybe even much less. That leaves 80 percent of our life or more to be lived doing things like commuting on a subway, shopping for groceries, filling the bird feeder, brushing our teeth, channel surfing or—as in Angela’s case—sitting in a car watching an Indian woman struggle with her orange jacket and a family of strangers shoot off a rocket. That is where Haddon excels in his novel. The inclusion of the everyday, quiet, non-dramatic moments add up to paint richer portraits of all eight of the characters in this tale told through shifting viewpoints of each one of them.

I try to add depth and texture to my own stories through description as well.  I do not profess to be in the same league as Mark Haddon but I look for unique ways to accurately describe an event or action.  In a recent short story I included the following vignette surrounding the ringing of a cell phone:

…She was just about to open the email message [on her laptop] when her cell phone came alive, doing a buzzy June-bug dance on the table, startling her and at the same time reminding her of a mechanical football game her brother had when they were little.  

The game was constructed out of sheet metal. The two of them would set up offensive and defensive formations, he would flip a switch causing the field to vibrate and the pieces would scurry randomly across its surface constituting a play. Her brother eventually graduated to Madden NFL video games and the vibrating football field was shunted to the back of a closet until it was given away or thrown out.

Many say that if it isn’t vital to moving the plot forward, slash it. Well, the above detail is not a vital piece of my story and could be easily axed, but a buzzing cell phone on the table and a recollection of an old childhood game are ways for me to hopefully connect with readers who have had similar recollections. It also provides pacing, adds to the cadence and helps to describe the feel of the moment. Vital? No. Important? Yes.

Description is more than flowery language or clever use of simile and metaphor. They are indeed tools to be employed, but to me putting the reader in the scene is where success lies. I immediately connected with Haddon’s use of some of the everyday minutia to help me visualize the surroundings and understand the emotions and feelings of the characters in those situations. I hope you do too. Go ahead. Get descriptive.

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One comment on “In Search of Good Descriptions

  1. You might like this….from a weekly e-mail: http://storyoftheweek.loa.org/. Arvilla at Alphabetstory

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