When an Apple is Not an Apple–the Power of Description
Next, she passed around a printed photograph of an apple and asked the same. Then, a plastic apple, and finally a real one. Following the exercise, we all wrote our descriptions on one of those poster-sized Post-it pages and put them up for comparison.
For the word apple, we had great diversity. Some folks wrote brand names, others wrote colors. Surprisingly, no one mentioned seeds or stems. One man described an apple as round, another said an apple was dimpled.
The clever instructor had anticpated this, bringing in one of those plastic bowling balls from a kids playset. She held it over her head and said, “Here I have an object–red and round, dimpled and solid. And yet, it’s not an apple.”
When we made our lists for the real apple, they were remarkably similar and very detailed. Everyone saw it exactly the same way. Sure, a couple of people noticed minute details that others didn’t see, but there was no room to question that we were describing a real, edible apple.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve critiqued a writing piece where I couldn’t see it the way the author visualized it in their minds due to their sparse detail. It’s so important to add in those smells, tastes, sounds, and textures.
Although, it’s easy to get carried away with over-describing. Confession. I haven’t been able to make it past page ten of The Hobbit, though I’ve tried several times. I know Tolkien is a literary genius and all, but quotes like this turn into mush in my mind:
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats–the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on…
And I’m sorry, but if you write like that, I’m probably not going to make it through the first few pages of your story. It’s a far cry from Edgar Allen Poe’s the Pit and the Pendulum, where you find description like this:
— my chin rested upon the floor of the prison, but my lips and the upper portion of my head, although seemingly at a less elevation than the chin, touched nothing. At the same time my forehead seemed bathed in a clammy vapor, and the peculiar smell of decayed fungus arose to my nostrils. I put forward my arm, and shuddered to find that I had fallen at the very brink of a circular pit, whose extent, of course, I had no means of ascertaining at the moment. Groping about the masonry just below the margin, I succeeded in dislodging a small fragment, and let it fall into the abyss. For many seconds I hearkened to its reverberations as it dashed against the sides of the chasm in its descent; at length there was a sullen plunge into water, succeeded by loud echoes.
The difference–such a simple thing! Poe’s narrator interacts with the setting. He feels it, he smells it, he breathes it in. As our PD instructor told us–if you can make your students taste that apple, then you’ve done your job with description. The same goes for readers. After all, no one wants to eat a plastic bowling ball.