How to Write Surprising Descriptions

9 Sep
One reviewer said of the essays in Amy Leach's Things That Are, "If Donald Barthelme had made nature documentaries, the commentary might have sounded like this."

One reviewer said this about the essays in Amy Leach’s Things That Are: “If Donald Barthelme had made nature documentaries, the commentary might have sounded like this.”

At some point in your story or novel or essay, you’ll need to write a memorable description, something better than red or big or happy. So, you start free writing and brainstorming to find the right words, but they’re all variations on the usual and expected. You want to find something new and startling, but how?

For essayist Amy Leach, writing eye-opening descriptions seems almost as natural as breathing. Her essay, “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters,” is, in a way, one long description that develops and moves in surprising ways. It was published in The Iowa Review and included in her collection, Things That Are. You can read it here as a sample of the book or here at JSTOR.

How the Essay Works

As we grow older, we fall into patterns of seeing. We perceive not the thing itself but our expectation (built on years of seeing) of what the thing should look like and what it is. A good description, then, wipes away those years of seeing and allows us to see the world the way we saw it as babies and children: for the first time. Watch how Leach strips away the usual ways of perceiving in the first paragraph of “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters”:

In the seventeenth century, his Holiness the Pope adjudged beavers to be fish. In retrospect, that was a zoologically illogical decision, but beavers were not miffed at being changed into fish. They decided not to truckle to their new specification, not to be perfect fish, textbook fish; instead they became fanciful fish, the first to have furry babies, the first to breathe air and the first fish to build for themselves commodious conical fortresses in the water. If Prince Maximilian, traveling up the Missouri River, had taken it in mind to categorize them as Druids or flamingos, beavers would have become toothy Druids, or portly brown industrious flamingos.

The last phrase of the paragraph (“portly brown industrious flamingos”) would have been an inconceivable string of words without the rest of the paragraph. But, by introducing the idea that beavers might not actually be beavers, Leach removes the usual way of viewing the animal and gives herself the opportunity to see them as something totally new. The same thing is true of the description that ends this next two sentences:

The beavers’ reaction to their papal renaming highlights two of their especial qualities: their affability and their unyieldingness. They affably yield not. If they are deemed fishes, they respond by becoming lumberjack fishes.

How amazing is that phrase: lumberjack fishes? And how impossible it would be to pair those words in a passage that looks at beavers in the usual way.

Despite the inventiveness of the descriptions, Leach actually arrives at them in methodical ways:

  1. First, she introduces a wrong way of viewing something: the Pope says beavers are fish.
  2. Then, rather than correcting the wrong idea, she accepts it as a fact: okay, if beavers are fish, then these are the kind of fish they are.
  3. Finally, she introduces more wrong ways of viewing the beavers (if they’re already fish, why not make them flamingos?).
  4. This last, previously inconceivable way of viewing beavers creates the opportunity to describe them in new ways.

It might be tempting to think that these descriptions (lumberjack fishes, portly brown industrious flamingos) are simply cute, but Leach uses them to set up alternate ways to view not just beavers but nature as a whole and our place within it. In fact, the collection of essays as a whole repeatedly offers new ways of thinking about basic human experience—and these new ways are almost always tied to descriptions that scramble the usual order of things.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write surprising descriptions using “In Which the River Makes Off With Three Stationary Characters” by Amy Leach as a model:

  1. Introduce a wrong way of viewing something. This happens in real life on a daily basis. Two people witness the same event and describe it in different ways. The resulting miscommunication can turn tragic or comic. But there are simpler ways to introduce an odd perspective. Take any common human interaction (lovers meeting or fighting, workers conferring, cashier checking out a customer) and label it as something that it clearly isn’t. In other words, write a scene in which two people kiss and then suggest that it’s a fight. Or, show two people shaking hands or passing money and suggest that they’re in love. This mashup challenges the ideas of loving and fighting and the typical way that we view these common scenes. You can actually do this with any interaction that you’ve already written in a story. Simply label it as something that it isn’t.
  2. Accept the error and write as if it applies. What if the people kissing really are fighting? What if the people shaking hands are in love? What would that mean? Are they pretending? Acting a certain way in public, for show? Fulfilling an obligation? Or, does love mean something different than we think it means? For instance, there are office wives and husbands—think about how odd that pairing and description is. Try to explain how the scene you’ve chosen can look one way but be called something that it doesn’t seem, at first glance, to be.
  3. Introduce more wrong ways of viewing the same thing. If we can have office wives or husbands, what other kinds of wives and husbands can we have? Bar spouses? Church spouses? Internet spouses? Or, if a coworker can be an office wife, what else can they be? An office sister? An office mother? An office lieutenant? An office gravedigger? If you’re going to break the bond between words and bind them to new, unusual words, don’t stop. Keep going to see how far you can push the idea.
  4. Describe the encounter or person or thing. What is a handshake between lovers? A pillow handshake? A spooning handshake? What is a kiss between people who are fighting? A blistering peck? A wolfish smooch? You can do better than these example. Play around. Try to surprise yourself. The immediate goal is to find an interesting description, but doing so may require creating an entirely new way to view an essential part of the story. 

Have fun!

2 Responses to “How to Write Surprising Descriptions”

  1. hutchowen September 10, 2014 at 8:02 p09 #

    I love this blog. These are fabulous exercises, thanks Michael.

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