In the previous posting, I said that a descriptive passage is the *story* of a *particular character’s* *encounter* with a person, place or thing. Let’s look at an example of how to use this idea.
Jance always hated visiting his lawyer’s office. It was too quiet. It was too beige. It was too perfectly designed to look like what it was.
The receptionist at the front desk might well have been an actress hired for the part: not too young, not too old, very good-looking but always dressed with immaculate professionalism. She always said exactly the same thing when Jance entered. “Good morning, sir, how can I help you? Certainly, sir. If you’ll just take a seat? And who shall I say is waiting?” Then the woman would dial the phone and speak in a voice too low for Jance to hear.
Because Jance was who he was, he never had to wait. The receptionist would rise from her desk within a few seconds and say, “If you’ll follow me, please, Mr. Jance?” She’d open the inner office door (solid mahogany, not just mahogany veneer over a cheaper wooden core) and lead him down a thickly carpeted hall on which every side-door was shut. She’d always deposit him in a conference room lined with shelves holding austere looking law-books. She’d pull out a chair for him to sit at the conference table, then leave him alone in the windowless room. He’d then spend precisely three minutes contemplating the books, always wondering if they served any purpose except to look impressive. Surely everything was computerized now, even in the fusty old legal profession. Immediately afterward, Jance was always angry with himself for thinking the same thoughts every damned time he was forced to come here. But he never had time to shift his thoughts in other directions, because three minutes to the second after he arrived, Bethany Pruitt would come through the door.
This passage is told from the point of view of Jance. Jance is not a neutral observer; he has an opinion about everything he sees, or at least about everything he pays attention to. But notice all the things he ignores. For example, he doesn’t give any actual physical details about the receptionist (hair color, skin color, height, etc.). Instead, he regards her as part of the office decor, hardly a person at all. He acknowledges that she’s “very good-looking” but he’s more specific about the office door than he is about her.
The passage describes the office more or less in the order that Jance would see it on a typical visit: first the reception room, then the corridor, then the conference room. At every stage, Jance makes note of things that annoy him. Presumably, there are other things to see and hear and smell, but they don’t register with him. jance may be actively looking for things that he can view negatively. And he’s clearly the sort of person who cares very much about how long he’s kept waiting—on multiple occasions, he must have timed precisely how long he sits in the conference room before the lawyer arrives.
Putting this all together, we get a clear first impression of Jance’s personality, at the same time that we get a description of the office. What Jance sees and what he feels in response tell us a lot about who he is. It also gives us a clear first impression of the office, but presented in the form of a story: the story of Jance’s typical visit.
If a different character visited the same office, the description might well be completely different. Imagine, for example, a character who has never been to see a lawyer before, and is nervous about doing so now. That character would notice different details…or maybe the character would scarcely notice anything because he or she is so worried about his/her legal problems. Such a character might find the receptionist’s cool attitude reassuring rather than annoying. Probably too, the character would have a different set of experiences, perhaps being left to wait in the reception area much longer than Jance was.
If I wanted to show off, I might write a description of the same office from several different characters’ points of view. However, this post has gone on long enough, so perhaps I’ll do that later this week.
[Photo of law office by Berenice Abbott (Public domain) via Wikimedia Commons]