How to Write Descriptions that Cut Both Ways

8 Sep
J. Ryan Stradal's novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest was called, by The New York Times, an "impressive feat of narrative jujitsu" and "a terrific reminder of what can be wrested from suffering and struggle" by Jane Smiley.

J. Ryan Stradal’s novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest was called, by The New York Times, an “impressive feat of narrative jujitsu” and “a terrific reminder of what can be wrested from suffering and struggle” by Jane Smiley.

When describing characters, it’s tempting to attempt the literary equivalent of a mug shot and try to capture an exact likeness. A description of this nature will rely on precise details: height, weight, hair color, eye color, clothes, and shoes. But what does this really tell us? My father likes to describe a person with a particular body type as being “built like a brick shithouse.” This delightful statement tells you as much about my father as the person he’s describing, which is often the effect of good writing. An effective description will reveal essential qualities of both the character being described and the character doing the looking.

A great example of this two-edged description can be found in J. Ryan Stradal’s novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest. You can read an excerpt at the website of Stradal’s publisher, Pamela Dorman Books.

How the Novel Works

Early in the novel, we’re shown an encounter between two characters who will eventually get married. So far, the narration has followed Lars, and so the encounter is portrayed from his perspective:

It was during these happy weeks when Cynthia Hargreaves, the smartest waitress on staff—she gave the best wine pairing advice of any of the servers—seemed to take an interest in Lars. By this time, he was twenty-eight, growing a pale hairy inner tube around his waist, and already going bald. Even though she had an overbite and the shakes, she was six feet tall and beautiful, and not like a statue or a perfume advertisement, but in a realistic way, like how a truck or a pizza is beautiful at the moment you want it most. This, to Lars, made her feel approachable.

This passage contains two different kinds of descriptions. The first is literal. We learn Lars’ age and two specific details about his anatomy (hairy inner tube, bald). With Cynthia, we about her height and teeth and one of her physical ticks. In short, we’re shown both characters’ distinctive physical traits. But these, for me, aren’t the best lines. Instead, it’s the statement that explains her beauty, in Lars’ eyes: “not like a statue or a perfume advertisement, but in a realistic way, like how a truck or a pizza is beautiful at the moment you want it most.” It’s a cliché to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s also true. Good writing often revitalizes such cliches. (And, as much as I’d like to claim that piece of wisdom as my own, it’s been previously stated by, alas, Jonathan Franzen and covered in-depth in this book by Orin Hargraves.)

That line about trucks and pizza reveals something about Cynthia (she’s not what some might call “classically beautiful”), but it reveals even more about Lars, the kind of man who connects beauty to trucks and pizza. It also tells us something about the nature of his desire. He’s not simply admiring Cynthia the way someone might admire a statue. Instead, he wants her, which is a feeling one doesn’t usually get in a museum unless you’re an art collector. So, we learn about Lars’ needs, not just his aesthetic bent.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write double-edged descriptions using Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal as a model:

  1. Describe the thing literally. Don’t use metaphor. Instead, focus on physical traits—height, weight, particularly body parts like teeth or hair—or on personality traits like a big smile, quick to anger, easy to get along with. Write a lot. Go overboard with the description. It may be the case that the character isn’t firmly planted in your mind, and so it can be helpful to describe as much as possible.
  2. Give the description coherence. Don’t treat your characters like strangers. There’s a reason that eyewitness descriptions tend to be vague; they eyewitnesses don’t know the person, haven’t developed an opinion toward the person, and so recollect the most general of details. But if you were to describe your partner, sibling, child, parent, good friend, or mortal enemy, you’d likely be precise and specific. You wouldn’t, however, be exhaustive. You’d mention some character traits but not others, choosing the ones that fit into your sense of the person. This is your goal for a fictional description as well. Stradal does this in a very clear way in this passage: “Even though she had an overbite and the shakes, she was six feet tall and beautiful.” The sense of the person is important. Someone else might simply focus on her teeth and shakes and not consider her beautiful, and that sense of her would lead to an entirely different description. So, try this: Choose a broad word like beautiful, ugly, mean, kind, intelligent, savvy, deviouslazy, or ambitious. Then, write a sentence-long description that aims toward that word (and perhaps even uses it). In this sentence, you could include details that don’t seem to fit (like “an overbite and the shakes”) but say, “But he was ____ anyway.”
  3. Add the viewer’s perspective. Choose a set of eyes for us to see the character through. In Stradal’s case, he shows us Cynthia through Lars’ eyes. Because they’re his eyes and not someone else’s, Cynthia’s beauty takes on a certain tint. She’s not just generically beautiful. Instead, she’s beautiful “not like a statue or a perfume advertisement, but in a realistic way, like how a truck or a pizza is beautiful at the moment you want it most.” So, you’ve got a coherent description and a word (beautiful, ugly, etc.). Now, add an explanation of how the character is beautiful, ugly, whatever, in that particular person’s eyes. Don’t rely on a generic intelligence, savvy, or laziness. Instead, make a comparison, literal or not, to something else; that comparison should tell us something about the person seeing the character, the person whose head we’re in. The difference in calling something beautiful like a chandelier and beautiful like a neon light tells you a lot about a character.

Good luck.

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One Response to “How to Write Descriptions that Cut Both Ways”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with J. Ryan Stradal | Read to Write Stories - September 10, 2015

    […] To read an excerpt from Kitchens of the Great Midwest and an exercise on writing character descriptions, click here. […]

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