Only occasionally do I post a piece on writing. And writers. When I do, it is something I feel can be useful to my fellow writers. I try to avoid repeating insights you can find on other blogs. With this in mind, today I’d like to recommend What We See When We Read by Peter Mdndelsund, art director and book designer at Alfred A. Knopf.
It answers so many questions I have had about description over the years. What to leave out and what to put in. Insights into how a writer should describe a character. How much of that description a reader will remember.
He interviewed readers of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, asking them to describe Anna. You will find the responses very interesting. Throughout the book, he refers to a number of great writers besides Tolstoy and how they have used description. Writers such as Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Kafka, Herman Melville and Gustave Flaubert.
Here are some of the writerly insights I found in the book:
1.Build the opening sentence solely from verbs. Make the verbs matter in the opening paragraph.
2.Focus on what the character does and how they do it, not how they look.
3.Different actors can inhibit a role in a play. and we accept those performances as true to the role. See how many actors have performed Hamlet. That’s because Shakespeare didn’t spend a lot of time describing Hamlet.
4.We hear more than we see when we are reading. So use appropriate sounding words to create a rhythm to a paragraph.
5.If the reader has to keep going back and re-reading a section because they are confused, the writer has lost the reader.
6.Describe a character or setting the way a character experiences them through their senses.
7.Show the world through the character’s eyes, not through the author’s.
8.When using a detail to describe a setting or a character, make it memorable and important. Then repeat it. Tolstoy mentions Anna Karenina’s “slender hands.” We remember Cyrano as big nosed. “Which aspect of a character is chosen to represent the character is crucial.” (p.394)
9.Don’t tell the reader everything. Give the reader a chance to use their imagination.
10.When using detailed description, make sure this matters. Such as showing what’s in a character’s closet or in their refrigeration. This probably isn’t needed unless the writer wants to reveal the character’s obsession with clothes or food. For instance, a writer might want to describe a character’s bathtub because the character obsesses over cleanliness.
11.When the writer creates a character, they are creating a world.
Note: I am in no way associated with this writer or his publisher. I have not received a book to review.