Descriptive Writing

I recently read The Silkworm, by JK Rowling Robert Galbraith. I’m not going to bother reviewing it, because I’m an enormous JKR fangirl and I haven’t a hope of an honest, unbiased review. I loved the book, just as I loved The Cuckoo’s Calling. I even liked The Casual Vacancy, which I know was a rather polarising read.

One thing that has always enthralled me about Rowling’s writing is her talent for description. While her diction may sometimes come across awkwardly, she has the ability, so essential to good worldbuilding, of giving off the essence of a character or place. Interestingly enough, Val McDermid said in her review of The Silkworm that she thought Rowling over-described aspects of London scenery, but as someone who has visited London a whole three times in my life (once as a toddler), I appreciated these descriptions.

As I mentioned recently, I have difficulty writing good descriptive passages, even though I find it essential in what I read. I just don’t see things clearly enough in my head. A fellow aspiring author and close friend of mine struggles to understand this, because as a painter she sees the scene play out with perfect clarity in her mind, and can give an entire paragraph on a character’s outfit.

Because my mind doesn’t seem to see things clearly, I don’t like large descriptive passages in books; they actually make it harder for me to visualise the story. I’ve been reading lots of Rowling recently (after reading her Galbraith books I almost immediately started into my Harry Potter collection), and because most people are at least familiar with her style, if not her most recent works, I’m going to use examples from her books.

In The Cuckoo’s Calling, a character is described thusly:

His face contrasted sharply with his taut, lean body, for it abounded in exaggerated curves: the eyes exophthalamic so that they appeared fishlike, looking out of the sides of his head. The cheeks were round, shining apples and the full-lipped mouth was a wide oval: his small head was almost perfectly spherical. [He] looked as though he had been carved out of soft ebony by a master hand that had grown bored with its own expertise, and started to veer towards the grotesque.

Galbraith, Robert, The Cuckoo’s Calling, p. 302.

The description of this character’s face is so extensive that I find it hard to actually imagine it as a unified whole; instead I see all the pieces of the face – eyes, cheeks and mouth – discretely. It is the last sentence that really gives the essence of what he looks like, and for me the description would be adequate with the beginning of the first sentence (up to the colon) and the last sentence.

Contrast this with the introduction of Professor Trelawney:

Harry’s immediate impression was of a large, glittering insect. Professor Trelawney moved into the firelight, and they saw that she was very thin; her large glasses magnified her eyes to several times their natural size, and she was draped in a gauzy spangled shawl. Innumerable chains and beads hung around her spindly neck, and her arms and hands were encrusted with bangles and rings.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, pp. 71-72.

This description is shorter than the one from above (which actually follows on from a paragraph describing the character’s body and attire), and I find it more useful. It gives a few specific details, like the large glasses, but on the whole paints Trelawney in broad strokes, making it, in my opinion, easier to form an impression of Trelawney.

Similarly, when describing locations I find a few particular details – a rumpled patchwork quilt, or a sunbleached windowsill – more useful, because they give me pertinent details that I can fill in on a basic template in my head. If a story is set in the present day, for instance, I throw those details into my childhood bedroom, rather than trying to construct a bedroom in my head.

None of this is to say that I don’t think descriptive passages are important. Description is so vital in SF/F worldbuilding, and the stories that stay with me tend to be the ones in which the author’s world is so richly imagined and described for me that the place’s atmosphere is almost tangible. The fact that Rowling so vividly describes Hogwarts is why I keep returning to the Harry Potter books, because she’s created a world that feels real.

Rather, the inspiration for this post came from the fact that I personally struggle with these types of passages as a writer. I know how important description is, so I want to improve my ability, and by considering what works and doesn’t work for me as a reader I’m beginning to see that my downfall is, really, that I don’t visualise things clearly. I’m always amazed when I watch a film or TV series based on a book by how much detail has gone into the costumes and sets. I simply don’t picture the places as intricately as they are shown.

I’m not entirely sure how to fix this. I’ve always read plenty of books and daydreamed to a fault, so it’s not as though I’m not feeding my imagination sufficiently. I tend not to notice small details in real life, though, so that might be hindering my ability to see them in a place I can only see in my head. Perhaps some visualisation exercises are in order. If you’ve made it to the end of this long and somewhat rambling post, do you have any suggestions?

Works Cited:

Galbraith, Robert. The Cuckoo’s Calling. London: Sphere, 2013.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Pottermore, 2012.


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