Have you ever gotten impatient with a descriptive passage, wondered why it seemed to go on and on, maybe skipped over part of it to get on with the story? Try to describe something at length to your friends, and it can be a conversation ender.
We’ve all been there. We’re hungry for the witty dialogue we know is coming, want to know what clues will be revealed next in a mystery. C’mon, get on with it already!
As a girl, Emilie Loring read Oliver Optic’s adventure stories. Impatient as his young readers, Optic described only what was absolutely necessary for the setting and then got straight to the action.
Just then he did not feel much interested in the scenery and natural advantages of the position. His stomach was imperative, and he was faint from the want of food. There was nothing in the woods to eat. Berry time was past; and the prospect of supplying his want was very discouraging… He had descended nearly to the foot of the hill when the sound of footsteps reached his ears. His heart beat quick with apprehension, and he paused to listen. The step was soft and light; it was not a man’s, and his courage rose. Pat, pat, pat, went the steps on the leafy ground, so gently that his fears were conquered; for the person could be only a child.
Oliver Optic, Try Again
This bit of advice appeared in The Editor magazine, which Emilie Loring read at the outset of her writing career:
Do not attempt high-flown description unless a bit of scenery is absolutely necessary as a background for something the force of which would be lost otherwise. Millions of men have been thrilled by a dawn or a sunset, but not more than one man in a million can pass the thrill along on paper.
But long descriptions were the norm in nineteenth-century literature. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “It was a dark and stormy night” is the hallmark of descriptive beginnings, and an Emilie favorite, Sir Walter Scott, wrote especially long, descriptive passages.
The sun was setting upon one of the rich grassy glades of that forest which we have mentioned in the beginning of the chapter. Hundreds of broad-headed, short-stemmed, wide-branched oaks, which had witnessed perhaps the stately march of the Roman soldiery, flung their gnarled arms over a thick carpet of the most delicious green sward; in some places they were intermingled with beeches, hollies, and copsewood of various descriptions, so closely as totally to intercept the level beams of the sinking sun; in others they receded from each other, forming those long sweeping vistas in the intricacy of which the eye delights to lose itself, while imagination considers them as the paths to yet wilder scenes of silvan solitude. Here the rays of the sun shot a broken and discoloured light, that partially hung upon the shattered boughs and mossy trunks of the trees, and there they illuminated in brilliant patches the portions of turf to which they made their way. A considerable open space, in the midst of this glade, seemed formerly to have been dedicated to the rites of Druidical superstition; for, on the summit of a hillock, so regular as to seem artificial, there still remained part of a circle of rough, unhewn stones, of large dimensions. Seven stood upright; the rest had been dislodged from their places, probably by the zeal of some convert to Christianity, and lay, some prostate near their former site, and others on the side of the hill. One large stone only had found its way to the bottom, and, in stopping the course of a small brook which glided smoothly round the foot of the eminence, gave, by its opposition, a feeble voice of murmur to the placid and elsewhere silent streamlet.
Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe
Scott went on for three more pages before getting to the action, which seems interminable to a reader in a rush but still falls short of an entire chapter of Moby Dick that describes just how white that white whale was.
Ugh! Ponderous! Why did they do it?!
Sitting here with my laptop and iPhone, a remote control to call up hundreds of television channels, plus Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and podcasts, it’s easy to forget…
Stories used to take time–and that was a good thing. Families read by oil lamp or candlelight, often aloud, for an evening’s entertainment. Longer, descriptive passages allowed listeners to gradually forget the reader and immerse themselves in the mental pictures created by the words. There was no “googling” if an obtuse reference was used; the thoughtful author provided what was needed to understand the story.
She voted for Charles Dickens as a satisfying hardy perennial and declared that by some trick of manner, or striking oddity of feature, he made even the most uninmportant characters unforgettable. As Long As I Live
Emilie Loring’s family had books, books, and more books. Evenings were long, and readers had time. Even when radio brought faster-paced stories and new sound effects, it was still the author’s job to paint the picture, to create the setting and mood.
She left the room by a long window with the dog at her heels, dashed across a brick terrace patterned in gold from the reflected sun and ran down the path to the shore between borders gay with gigantic late tulips, pink and bronze, white and lavender; blushing with huge pink peonies, and splashed with the scarlet of Oriental poppies. The pale green blades of late iris were treasure houses of color which a week of sunny days would release and spill through the border. The air was sweet with the breath of blossoms, spicy with the tang of kelp and the scent of balsam, spruce, pine and arborvitae. From a tree-top drifted the throaty call of a plover.
Give Me One Summer
We probably suffer a little from an expectation of fast action and quickly-satisfied curiosity. We take in an operating scene on “Grey’s Anatomy” without having each part of the room, each instrument and light, described. We can look up a word–or an image–on our Kindles without turning a page.
I appreciate description for the enduring craft that it is, developed for an earlier time, in some ways out of step with how we live today, yet essential. With a book by a stream and an afternoon ahead, it’s just exactly right. We don’t need pictures, only those carefully assembled words and our minds’ eyes.
Even her room took on fresh charm. The four-poster with its snowy canopy and valance, the hooked rugs with their impossible roses and less possible fruits, the white Staffordshire dogs on the mantel with their red ears and tails, had occupied the same places as far back as she could remember. Fair Tomorrow
The woods were fragrant and still; the noise of traffic was reduced to a purr. Lovely country. She filled her lungs with the sparkling air scented with balsam and pine, crisped with a hint of September chill. Rather nice to be on her own, not to care where the road went. Uncharted Seas