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Description as a violent act

I’ve recently come across a number of readers (and writers!) who bemoan description in fiction.  Indeed, some readers admit to skipping description in favour of getting to action and dialogue.  This seems to be particularly true of landscape descriptions or any descriptions of the natural world.  Perhaps it is a sign of our times: impatience, short attention spans, our reluctance to watch anything that moves a little more slowly.  Or perhaps it is the fault of poor writers who have given a bad name to description.

I was made aware of the joy of good description in an essay by the author Adam Foulds, ‘Description with Meaning’, from a collection of articles in a book called WRITE.  He opens with the wonderful statement: ‘Description is a violent act.’  By that he means that when we describe something, we dismantle it and creatively reassemble according to what we wish the reader to see and to feel.  Description is therefore not ornamental or incidental or passive: rather it is alive, it has a purpose.  He speaks of descriptions needing three key qualities:

  • spacial precision
  • sensory alertness
  • music

With these things in place, description is ‘live’ and ‘connected’.

Foulds quotes from a wonderful letter written by Flaubert at 2am in the morning after a long day’s writing:

‘No matter whether good or bad, it is a delectable thing, writing!  not having to be yourself, being able to circulate in amongst the whole creation that you are describing.  Today, for instance, as a man and as a woman, a lover and mistress both, I have been riding in a forest on an autumn afternoon, and I was the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words that they spoke to each other and the red sunlight that made them half-close their eyes, eyes that were brimming with love.’

Good writing, then, means inhabiting every element of your descriptions as fully as you do your characters, and seeing them as alive and intrinsically connected to every part of your story.

I am off to commit some violent acts in current novel, Coming Home!