Writers beware: descriptive prose often fascinates the writer but bores the reader. I’ve done research on a specific place and written it so well that my readers can look it up on Wikipedia and know more from my prose. My wife (first draft editor) redlines those passages, boring, or, when she’s in a good mood, who cares?
Details do not make for great descriptions. Great descriptions fire your imagination. “It was a brownstone that stood on the corner, three windows wide with a seven-step stair to the ornate glass door” is not the same as “not a single brownstone remained cemented to any other; they had collapsed in a pile on top of every earthly possession Mrs. Hodges owned”. One paints a picture and the other raises a question.
The Great Gatsby* is venerable enough to use for examples. Here is one of only three descriptions we have of Jay Gatsby’s mansion, the property next door to the narrator:
When I came home to West Egg that night I was afraid for a moment that my house was on fire. Two o’clock and the whole corner of the peninsula was blazing with light, which fell unreal on the shrubbery and made elongating glints upon the roadside wires. Turning the corner, I saw that it was Gatsby’s house, lit from tower to cellar.
An active description doesn’t need details or brand names or architectural features. The only physical description in this passage is ‘tower to cellar’. From that we have a sense of vertical scale. That the lighting was enough to make the narrator think his own house was on fire tells us it was a broad place. The rest is up to our imagination.
Fitzgerald has no need to put something in your mind like colonial or Georgian revival, or modernist. As a reader, Fitzgerald gives you some scale and lets you imagine your favorite architecture.
What about describing people? Not once does Fitzgerald tell us how tall Gatsby is or what color hair he has. The first time we see him, he’s a figure in the dark staring into the heavens. The next time, we hear him calling people old sport. His chin lifts when he speaks. That’s it. What defines Gatsby is how he acts. In this scene, he waits as the narrator introduces Gatsby’s old flame:
Gatsby, his hands still in his pockets, was reclining against the mantelpiece in a strained counterfeit of perfect ease, even of boredom. His head leaned back so far that it rested against the face of a defunct mantelpiece clock, and from this position, his distraught eyes stared down at Daisy, who was sitting, frightened but graceful, on the edge of a stiff chair.
“We’ve met before,” muttered Gatsby. His eyes glanced momentarily at me, and his lips parted with an abortive attempt at a laugh. Luckily the clock took this moment to tilt dangerously at the pressure of his head, whereupon he turned and caught it with trembling fingers and set it back in place.
In this slapstick scene, Fitzgerald brings Gatsby down to earth from his enigmatic perch in the first half of the book. At this point, we know only that he’s wealthy and throws fabulous parties. Someone thought he was German and someone else thought he’d killed a man and yet another suggested Gatsby went to Oxford. But is he blond? Six five or five six? White suit or gray or tan? Fitzgerald defines Gatsby’s movements while allowing you the courtesy of drawing the man to your own specifications.
But is that the only way to describe a central character, to make a fool of him? Again, we don’t need height, weight, hair and eye color. Here is the first time our narrator meets Gatsby. He’s been sitting at a table chatting with Gatsby serving in the Great War (published in 1925) without knowing it was Gatsby. Once the embarrassment passes, our narrator give us the only description in the book:
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with the quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across for or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.
Yeah, who wouldn’t want to hang with that guy? Right there, on page 48, you become a fan of the enigma. But if three readers were to describe him, would they see the same man?
* Remember that Fitzgerald’s masterpiece was 46,000 words and yet conveyed a story so powerful it drove five movies, two television mini-series, and countless high school discussions. It had a short run and enjoyed weak sales until Fitzgerald’s death in 1940.
Category: On Writing