As writers, we always want to weave our description into the story just enough to make it vivid but not so much as to slow the story down. While Dickens may have been able to get away with an entire chapter about fog in Bleak House, modern authors usually can’t get away with that and still sell books.
We frequently hear about including the senses in our writing, but we need to remember to include descriptors that have a purpose. Does it create a mood? Does it tell us something important about our characters? Does it move the plot forward? Is it important later in the story? Maybe the image of a gorgeous orange leaf floating down to a pond captivates your imagination as an author, but does it make sense for the story you’re writing? If your character is zipping by that leaf at 60 miles per hour on her way to a family member’s death bed, perhaps that’s not the moment for that particular image.
Roberta Rich sets the scene and the mood and drops us right in the midst of the story with the very beginning of The Midwife of Venice:
Ghetto Nuovo, Venice
At midnight, the dogs, cats, and rats rule Venice. The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin. Shapeless matter, perhaps animal, floats to the surface of Rio di San Girolamo and hovers on its greasy waters. Through the mist rising from the canal, the cries and grunts of foraging pigs echo. Seeping refuse on the streets renders the pavement slick and the walking treacherous.
It was on such a night that the men came for Hannah.
In less than a hundred words, we know these things:
- It is an odd time; something must be wrong.
- Hannah lives in the super ghetto. Literally.
- Something creepy is about to happen.
The author gave us all of this information without telling us directly. She uses multiple senses to show us the environment, set the eerie mood, and drop hints that something is about to happen, all at a bridge that comes up in the story again and again. She pulls the reader in.
What have you read recently where the description jumps off the page? What do you think makes for good description?
- Check out an in-depth review of The Midwife of Venice here. Like the reviewer, I also think it’s pretty cool that the book shows both good and bad Jews, Christians, and Muslims — it’s not just one religion versus another.
- Agent Nathan Bransford has a great post on showing vs. telling here and how “specificity wins.”