On the Need for Quality Description
by William Alan Rieser
You may not have given it much thought, but you’ve all seen detective dramas on television wherein an eyewitness to an event is asked to describe what they’ve seen. More often than not, the response is bland and inconclusive unless the witness has had a person or a scenario unshakably etched into his/her mind for a memorable reason. Even so, a strong opposing attorney in court can manipulate a weak description to create severe doubt in the jury’s thoughts by making the testimony seem uncertain. This is precisely the wall to be climbed by the writer in describing objects and people to his readers. Fail to be convincing and even the most desultory scanner of your story can lose interest or misinterpret your intentions. This is death to writers who seek recognition and wish to be remembered or quoted.
There was a tree in the field. Wonderful. Now what are you going to do with it? You’ve got five senses to play with, the very same inspiration that gives us empirical science. How can they be applied? First of all, ask yourself the five basic questions.
1. What does the tree look like? Does it have a thick or slim trunk, lot of branches and do they bear leaves or fruit? What colors does the tree show and does it cast a unique shadow? How is the sun perceived through its labyrinth? Are their animals and insects in the tree or people walking nearby? Is it beautiful or ugly, slender or twisted in rolling knots, pristine or hacked, standing tall or bent over with age? Is it forlorn or majestic?
2. How does the tree feel? Is the bark rough like an oak, filled with fissures and hard against your fingers? Does it have a smooth skin like the white birch or slippery elm and does sap run along its length? Do falling leaves caress you when you stand beneath it or does it shelter you from the rain? Do the leaves feel tender, young and full of refreshed life or are they old, wrinkled and prepared to nurture the earth? Is it warm or did you appreciate the campfire of its dead branches? Does snow and ice weigh the branches down with temporary sculpture?
3. What smells come from this tree? Can you perceive the scent of pine or differentiate it from mint? Is there a nutty flavor in the air or the odor of dropped fruit on the ground? Is there a maple sugariness about it, wavering in your nostrils? Does green descend upon you to deliver the verdancy of the leaves when the wind rushes through them? Can you sense the inner pith, the wine of the bark or the lime freshness of the spots where the skin has been stripped off?
4. How does it taste? Did you boil some of the leaves for tea or crush the bark into a healing broth? Have you sipped the dew of the morning or sucked the honey from a bee’s nest? Did you roast a marshmallow within its shadow or savor coffee? Did you eat of its fruit and rejoice in that succulence? Was it so old that it crackled in the campfire with a charcoal residue or did its newness cause a lingering, complaining smoke that choked you?
5. What did the tree say? Was there a message in the leaves as they swayed with the wind? Did it snap at you in whipping gusts of anger? Did the trunk groan during the storm or split shrieking amidst the lightning strike? Did you notice the gentle poem of the summer breeze as it graced by the limbs? Was there a nearby stream to sing a lullaby as the roots drank quietly? Did the tree respond in chorus to the rain or stand mute under the sun or were there nightingales there to carry the melody?
Are we finished? Hardly. Did it scare you on a stormy Halloween night? Did its winter branches whip against your window like some savage taskmaster? Were you comforted by its presence, seeing it again after a long journey? Is your cat hiding mischievously within its arms or is the neighborhood squirrel storing nuts for the winter inside a knothole? Have the blue jays raised a family or is the mockingbird happy to greet the sun this morning?
Then again, the statement used past tense. What happened to it? Did it get cut down because somebody wanted to plow in that spot? Did it interfere with a new construction or was it blocking the view of something behind it? Was it hit by a vehicle and damaged beyond recovery? Was someone hanged on its limbs or did a child climb up and make a tree house in it, only to fall down and break an arm? Did lovers carve their initials into it in the past, only to find naught but a stump when they revisited in old age? Did it suffer horribly from predatory insects, a debilitating disease of has it triumphed against all adversity?
The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Consider the fact that we have yet to consider the tree’s environment, the field or the psychology or psychoses of flora in general. As you should be able to sense, details like that are telling. They make a difference and will glorify your narratives with items that make your creations breathe with life and reality. They may seem like small things, but they build character into scenes that would otherwise be lacking. Once you’ve managed to improve your technique by assigning traits to objects, you can then focus on the much more formidable task of qualifying people and the complex baggage that always accompanies us on our sojourns.
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