Jun 3, 2010

Imagery Beats Description

I've finally realised something about readers. They're imaginative, clever and they enjoy stories.

I was taking readers' creativity for granted when I wrote descriptions. After compiling character charts and world-building files, I tried to be detailed in creating the setting and portraying the characters. Then I read a book that changed my views on writing.

It wasn't one of the hundreds of non-fiction books I own, it was a story.
Tim Winton's Cloud Street is dubbed a modern classic and an Australian favourite. The book has been on my TBR shelf for over a decade, but I finally made time for it recently (okay I downloaded the audiobook from iTunes instead). What I noticed most about Winton's writing in this novel was the descriptions. Details and facts about appearances were short, but the personalities and moods were clear. Winton masterfully weaves metaphors and imagery like glittery threads through the story.

So soulful are Winton's descriptions that the main setting becomes one of the characters: The house at Cloud Street.
It was a big, sad, two-storey affair in a garden full of fruit trees. ...Here and there weatherboards peeled away from the walls and protruded like lifting scabs, but there was still enough white paint on the place to give it a grand air...
The house mirrors the families' lives and echoes their moods. After one character reacts to the death of a family member, the house is portrayed in a sinister style:
In the library the shadows danced. Oh, how they danced. Can't you still see the evil stink coming through the cracks, ...the swirling rottenness of their glee turning to gas across the rails, the rooftops, the tree crowns of the city? 
Here's an example of one of the main characters:
Rose was a slender, brown girl, with dark straight hair, cut hard across her forehead. She was a pretty kid, but not as pretty as her mother. Well, that's what everyone told her. She wasn't vain, but it stuck in her guts, having someone telling you that every day of your life. 
In this description, we are given a brief overview of Rose's physical attributes, but it's the line about not being as pretty as her mother, that provides the insight into who Rose is, and how she will be affected by the judgement of others. Winton shares Rose's progress into adulthood, one later description reveals her trying to harden herself against those around her:
She felt like she was made of steel. It was shiny and bitter and it shone all around like starlight.
This book was an experience for me, it was filled with sweetly-damaged characters and experiences combining heartache and hope.   What I'll take from it is to allow readers to fill in the blanks and create their own visual images. They don't need to know every character's outfit and hairstyle. 

 Never Underestimate Readers - or Cats.


  1. Brilliant. How true. I think I made this mistake on my first novel, I had learnt to respect the reader in my second, Karen

  2. Love it. I'm not a fan of a lot of description. I prefer to make up my own mind as I read - but I like those hints that give me those clear pictures. I hope to be able to do something one day in my own writing :)

  3. Karen - I'm still amazed that just when I think I know what I'm doing, I learn something new and realise I've still a long way to go.

    Jemi - Me too (I like to make up my own mind about what characters look like and what they'd wear) :-)

  4. I love those descriptions. He does make the settings a character. Wow.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. I'm another who likes to use my own imagination when it comes to what characters and places look like. It's probably why I struggle with writing description. This post really helped to see another - and better - way of doing it.

  6. Great post, Charmaine. It always helps to have such wonderful examples to help cement a concept. Love it! :-)

    P.S. I am featuring Paper Dolls on my blog tomorrow. :-)

  7. Charmaine, this is fabulous! I have always known I have no tolerance for over description, but contradictorily LOVE beautiful writing, which can FEEL so descriptive. You've managed to pinpoint WHY for me when i could never actually grasp it from a direct comparison between books that annoyed me and books I loved.

    I love both the personification of setting, and using contrasting appearances to point toward personality so that DESCRIPTION doesn't seem like description.

  8. Mason - This is one of the only novels I've enjoyed that isn't plot driven. It spans 20yrs and two families so there's no one story arc, but the characters and imagery were enough to make me love it.

    Jaydee - I Agree! Sometimes I find character descriptions, especially what they're wearing, just distracting from the story.

    Shannon - Your beautifulness never stops :-)

    Watery Tart - Thanks. Winton is talented, it's not easy to personify without making it cheesy. I'm curious enough about him now that I'll look into his career and see if he offers advice to writers.

  9. I love what you shared and I like that not one shoes fits all! Room for all kinds of styles!
    Looks like something I'd like to read; I like damaged; Readers can relate to it. We all are flawed. Thanks for sharing~

  10. Ellie - thanks, it was a good read. And for those that enjoy the occasional audiobook, the reader has a warm Australian accent.

  11. Tim Winton's Cloudstreet almost reads like poetry; I'm definitely going to pick up a copy. You are also very true that a writer shouldn't describe his/her characters, but let the reader paint the picture of what a character is and how a character looks like. Cool post, Charmaine. Write on!

    P.S. Thank you for following my blog, I really appreciate it! :)

  12. Vatche - welcome aboard. Winton is quite poetic in his writing, something I need to work a lot more on. Enjoyed your blog, some interesting posts up.

  13. Charmaine, This is great information. I think I draw a line on description before I'm finished. Very thought provoking post for me.