by Sue Anne Hodge
Being a very visual person, good description is something I cherish in the different books I read. If the author can make me see the scene fully in my mind, I'm hooked. Description sounds simple but it's tricky to get right. Too little leaves the reader floundering, too much buries him or her in details. Good description lets the reader see the scene ... great description pulls the reader right smack into the action. One of the first short stories I read from Stephen King still sticks in my mind: "The guy's name was Snodgrass ... he had a tight little potbelly encased in a good suit that was getting a little shiny in the seat. He was a salesman and he kept his display bag close to him, like a pet dog that had settled down to sleep." Can you picture that man, a little down on his luck, passing time until his next appointment? I can see the color and texture of the guy's suit, see the worn soles of his dusty shoes, feel the weight along with every detail of that display case nestled next to those shoes.
Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's. So how does a writer go about succeeding at getting into the reader's head and letting said reader experience the story? There are articles, books, workshops and more that can help, but the best way I've found is to read, read, read, then write, write, and write some more. I have a folder titled Unblocking Passages. Whenever I read an inspiring passage, sentence, or word, I enter it along with the name of the book and author into that folder. Before sticky notes, my favorite books had folded corners. The more folds the better the book. I rely on my Unblocking Passages to act like jumper cables for sluggish creative juices, or, at the very least, give me a shove to keep me going along my novel's path.
The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary to get one's point across. Some of my favorite description comes from the hardboiled-detective fiction of the forties and fifties: "I lit a cigarette that tasted like a plumber's handkerchief." (Raymond Chandler.)