Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

Writing advice: show articles ▼▲

Description: what's it for?

It was a dark and stormy night and he was lost in the forest looking for her cottage.


The world was plunged into stygian gloom, the wind and rain pelting as from nowhere into his face as he struggled onward through the undifferentiated forest, seeking her tiny, tumbledown cottage.


He staggered through the darkness, moon more smear than light, buffeted by trees that sprang from the darkness against him, cut by rain sharp as ice, his squinting eyes seeking a better light, lamplight from her cottage.


He edged through the darkness, arms outstretched, fingers on the softly-peeling bark of a birch, then the roughness of hemlock, as the branches above him groaned in the wind he could hear but not feel. He flinched from the whip of the icy rain, his exhausted eyes jumping with sparks, fooling him that the lamp above her door was there – there – until he lost faith in them and shouldered like a bull through the thick-matted pine trees, driving himself forward because he would not turn back.


Four descriptions of the same thing: a man lost in a forest in a night storm. Each of the four strives to achieve the same purpose, but why do two work and two do not?

What is the purpose of description? It's not simply to tell the reader about something. 'She was five-two, medium build, redhead, green eyes.' This is fine for the police, but not for the fiction writer. Every detail in a story has to have a reason, and that reason is to drive the narrative forward. A descriptive passage gives details about someone or something in order to give the reader a better understanding about the characters and their world. 'She was five-two, redhead, green eyes, and a badly scarred face.' will give the reader vital information about that woman. Why the scar? How does she feel about it? How does it influence her actions?

In the same way, the detail describing the man lost in the forest has to tell us more than it was night, it was stormy, and he was lost. The first passage, above, does nothing more. There is no excitement, worry, fear, wonder. It is dead, dull prose. Surely you want to do better than that.

The second is merely elaboration on the first, using fancy language in an attempt to disguise flaccid thought. Some writers think that elaborate language lifts ordinary vision into literature. 'She was a redhead' and 'She had tresses the colour of wheat kissed with raspberry' say the same thing, but the first is honest and the second is balderdash. 'Dark night' and 'Stygian gloom' also mean the same. The writer is not imagining the actual night, but simply dressing up a cliché. And clichés never propel any narrative anywhere. They just take up space.

The writer has to enter the environment he or she is describing. Say your protagonist is loading a nine-pound cannon with grapeshot on a frigate. What does he see and smell? You have to see through his eyes, feel what he would feel, know what he would know. Writers are supposed to have this vivid imagination, the ability to create a world for the reader. Creating a world means specific, concrete details. 'His uniform was uncomfortable' tells you nothing about a young soldier at Gettysburg. 'He had a raw patch under his chin that his stock rubbed open every morning, a black bruise where his haversack rode his shoulder, peeling toes inside his sodden boots, and an arm growed two inches longer 'cause his gun was so damned heavy' takes you into his private misery.

This intimacy is the other half of a good descriptive passage. You must not only see, feel, hear, smell the physical environment, you must also share the character's feelings. Passage (3) of the lost man gives you this. The man staggers, is abused by the elements, seeks for light. It tells of painful, unrewarded searching. This passage has specific detail and implies something about the man. It moves the narrative forward by giving him motive (a search) as well as a predicament.

The last passage takes us into the man, into his weariness, gives us some measure of his drive to find that cottage, and it is done with concrete detail that gives the reader the feel of the birch tree, the sound of the trees and the weight of the rain, yet evokes, by the words 'groaned' and 'flinched', some measure of his own physical state. Environment and character create a sense of being there with that man, helping the reader to understand his determination and encouraging an interest in who 'she' is and if he will find her.

A good descriptive passage has three elements: (a) specific, well-observed detail (b) revelation of the character's inner life and (c) motivation: what drives that character. 'She was a redhead with a scarred face' is detail, 'She was a redhead with a scarred face who took his love as pity' combines it with the character's inner life, and 'She was a redhead whose scarred face made her take his love as pity until the moment she opened her cottage door and caught him, frozen and half-blind, into her suddenly believing arms.' is a story.