I love long, lyrical descriptions in books and stories. Not necessarily Henry James, but I enjoy exact and detailed descriptions of people and places. Some readers do not. They are happy with the bare bones so they can rush on with the story. Writers vary too, some preferring to tell a reader precisely what a room, or street, or main character looks like; while other writers sketch in the highlights and let the readers fill in whatever additional details they want. Regardless of which type of description a writer prefers, how that description is written is key. A twelve-year-old child will describe his bedroom differently from his mother. A woman newly in love will describe her walk to work in language that is different from the woman’s whose dog has just died. So whether the description is long or short, the narrator’s distinctive voice is vital.
Two of the students in my fall class in Newburyport wrote completely different descriptions in their fiction pieces. One is of an apartment in Lowell, Massachusetts, the other of a villa in Laos, circa 1950. That is not why the descriptions are so dissimilar. Each narrator has a different purpose in the story and a different approach to the space the main character finds herself in.
In Susan’s short story, her first person narrator has volunteered to help social workers with their clients. As a volunteer, she is simply supposed to visit clients, see if they have any needs the social worker should be aware of, and to provide company for a few hours a week. Specifically, the volunteer is not to get involved in the client’s problems, give her money, anything like that. So Susan chose a suitably neutral and nonjudgmental voice to describe a client’s home:
“Ana leads me into the living room. Long, faded yellow curtains hang at odd angles over the windows, their hems dragging on the scarred wood floor, collecting dust. A sagging blue couch is pushed against one wall. The stuffing in the lumpy cushions seeps out of the seams and browns stains mark the back of the couch. A wooden bookshelf tilts along another wall, its lone occupant a china Virgin Mary, all in blue, head bent, hands clasped in prayer.” (Copyright © Susan P. Young)
Susan describes the room in exact detail, and yet the narrator maintains a distance. She does not judge what she sees; she simply sees it. Throughout the rest of the story, the narrator maintains this necessary distance from Ana.
Brian’s narrator, on the other hand, is not distant. The omniscient narrator describes a grand villa as an impoverished young woman with an illegitimate child approaches it, intent on finding a job there.
“The villa was on a low rise surrounded by a high wall. Each coat of paint on the stucco façade seemed less tenacious than the one beneath. Yellow gave way to carmine. Carmine peeled to reveal a misty blue. Despite the shutter that hung from one hinge, the villa represented authority and respectability, things Li Wu had once possessed but might never possess again.” (Copyright © Brian R. Kologe)
The narrator tells us, factually, what colors the villa has been painted over the years, yet the idea that the more recent coats of paint are less tenacious than the older ones is a judgment, not a fact. The narrator reveals something then beyond the physical state of the villa and its occupants. The narrator also tells us that Li Wu sees beyond the physical. She sees authority and respectability in the decaying building, traits that she has lost. So in a simple description of a villa, the main setting of the novel, we also learn about the people who do, and will, live there.
Susan’s narrator reveals the narrator’s state of mind; Brian’s reveals things unseen. So it’s not always what the writer describes, but how he or she does it.