As a child I inhaled books. But the one thing I avoided when possible were excessive descriptive passages describing locale. In my youth, in the ancient hoary days of yore, descriptive passages were more common. Also, they were generally longer than one is likely to find in fiction today.
Even one of my favorite books as a tween contained full pages of description of admittedly glorious scenery. I forced myself to read those pages, but only because the rest of the story was so good. In less appealing books, I skipped descriptive passages altogether.
Once I started reading adult books, I sometimes suspected authors of writing multi-page descriptions of settings to justify a tax deduction. This way their vacation to Bimini could count as a work expense. Pretty cynical for a teen, right?
Nowadays, I have a more charitable view of those descriptive passages. That doesn’t mean I want to go back and read them, but I think they signified a different view of a reader’s role. Books I read in the seventies gave the reader a truly omniscient view, a godlike perspective.
But we have changed how we use descriptive passages.
Over the decades since I was a young reader, writers have begun to pull readers further into a main character’s head, even when the story is told in third person. For better or worse, the reader is seeing a locale or a setting through a character’s eyes. Using description this way, turns it into a useful and somewhat sneaky device for a writer.
We all notice things in our own environment that matter to us or that we think are significant. So, a reader can learn a lot about a character by what that character notices. For instance, Tom may visit his friend, Helga, and notice an overflowing mug of milk abandoned on an old fashioned black linoleum countertop.
This can tell the reader that Helga is too overwhelmed to manage even the most menial of chores. Or she is so bound up in her pursuit of art she is just oblivious. The dated décor could imply Helga lives in the past, treasuring memories of her grandmother’s cooking. Or that she hated the woman and therefore hates the countertop but can’t afford to change it.
But that’s not all. Tom’s reaction to what he sees is also telling. Is he disgusted by the abandoned mug, does it worry him, or does he simply notice it and dismiss it? What memories does the countertop evoke in him? How do those memories affect his perception of Helga?
Here is where descriptive passages hit their stride.
Seeing a setting through the eyes of a character tells a reader as much about that character as about the scenery itself. It’s a great way to slip in a sneaky hint to the reader about a character’s issues or background.
It’s also a way to add tension. Nothing hooks a reader like knowing something about Helga that she herself isn’t aware of. This is the secret sauce to descriptive passages told from the perspective of a character. That makes a book the kind of story I don’t want to put down.
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Rose is the author of The Valora Series, The Durrell Brothers Trilogy, Hot Pursuit and Not As Advertised. Her novel, Waiting For You, the first book of the Durrell Brothers Trilogy, was 2nd place winner in the 2018 New England Reader’s Choice Contest. She loves writing stories about people who do everything in their power to avoid falling in love.
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