Writing Description and Exposition: Combo

Last week,I showed an example based on the principle that A descriptive passage is the story of a particular character’s encounter with a person, place or thing. I noted that things would be completely different if I wrote a description of the same thing but from a different person’s viewpoint. So today, let me do that.

It was the second time I’d ever been in a lawyer’s office.

The first time was in a flea-bitten fire-trap in a neighborhood where even the rats carried switchblades. The lawyer was a guy who smelled like he washed his clothes in cheap whisky…but to be fair, I smelled the same way at the time. (It was not a good period in my life.) But surprise, surprise, my “legal eagle” knew his way around a courtroom. Or maybe he just got lucky. Either way, he kept me for going down on a bogus count of B&E, manufactured by a cop who lost his temper because he couldn’t get me on thirty-some real B&E’s I’d committed around the city.

But my first lawyer died the very night he got me set free. I took him out for a celebration drink and he keeled over right beside me in a dirty little bar. It scared the piss out of me. Also the alcohol. I got into a program and came out embarrassingly sober.

Mind you, I didn’t give up being a thief—I just stopped stealing while drunk. Which is why I went for years without being caught, and why (when my luck finally had a hiccup) I could afford to hire the incomparable Bethany Pruitt.

Her office resembled the kind of place I now used my talents to burgle: up-scale, chic, but not matchy-matchy. I particularly liked the two paintings on the wall in the reception room. Both were dreamscapes full of stylized figures of naked people. I walked up to the receptionist and before she could even put on a professional smile, I said, “Those paintings are lovely. May I ask who’s the artist?”

“Nellie Chang,” the woman answered immediately. “She shows with a gallery just down the block. Ms. Pruitt greatly admires Nellie’s work.”

Useful information. I made a mental note to visit the gallery after hours and pilfer a few canvases. Art can be hard to fence, but I knew several buyers who’d be happy to acquire the work of an up-and-comer in the early stages of her career. Good investments, and all that.

The receptionist and I had a nice little chat about who I was and whether I had booked an appointment. I’d taken the liberty of hacking into the company’s computers to place myself on their appointment calendar, but apparently that didn’t count. To my astonishment, the office still operated on paper, and I wasn’t written down in the official appointment book. The situation took several minutes to sort out, after which I was escorted down to a room with an even greater quantity of paper shelved on the walls in the form of law books. It all seemed so twentieth century! Still, it’s harder to change words on paper than in The Cloud, so for all I knew, Bethany Pruitt ran the most secure legal firm in Manhattan.

Now notice all the things going on here. The first few paragraphs provide exposition in the form of a story: how the narrator nearly went to jail. We get a sense of the character’s voice, attitude, and profession. Then we return to the present to get on with the business at hand. We don’t know exactly what the narrator has done, but we can guess that (s)he stole something and got caught. The specifics will no doubt emerge in conversation with Pruitt.

By the way, the artist Nellie Chang should play some role in the ensuing story. I have nothing in mind—I’m just making this stuff up as I go along—but if Chang gets this much attention on Page 1 of a story, readers will expect to see more of her. The first few pages of a story always create expectations in the reader’s mind; you have to recognize that and deal with it. (You don’t have to fulfill reader expectations, but you have to address them. You can have Chang appear in all kinds of ways, some more predictable than others…but you have to use her somehow or readers will wonder why you mentioned her at all.)

I hope this helps illustrate some principles about description and exposition. If you have any questions about description or exposition, feel free to submit a comment!

[Photo of paint brushes by terri_bateman [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Writing Description: Examples

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]

Writing Description: Story

Recently, I’ve written a series of posts about exposition. Now I want to step back and talk about how to write descriptive passages. Description shares some features with exposition, but is much more common. Almost every page of a piece of fiction contains some description, unless you’re writing something very unusual.

For writing descriptions, I have a mantra: A descriptive passage is the *story* of a *particular character’s* *encounter* with a person, place or thing. Description is not a passive list of details that exists independent of any observer; it’s an active experience of someone perceiving and/or selecting what to tell about something.

Different characters perceive different things, they take note of different things, they have different ways of articulating what they perceive, and they have different reactions to what they perceive. All these factors enter into how you write any particular descriptive passage.

Someone looking at my desk might simply call it messy. A different someone might say it’s an old wooden desk with a modest-sized monitor screen and a well-used keyboard surrounded by a hodgepodge of paper. Someone who’s trying to hack my computer might ignore all the papers on top of the desk and even the screen; instead, they’d immediately open the desk drawers to see if I’ve written down passwords anywhere. Someone else might also ignore the papers, but go through all the tabs in my browser to see if there’s anything of note. Someone else might ignore my desk completely, and instead go through the bookshelves beside it.

The details you perceive about a person, place or thing depend on your thoughts and goals at the time of the encounter. Suppose you open a door and look into a room. If you’re searching for a friend, you may see that there’s no one in the room and immediately close the door without taking much note of anything the room contains. If, on the other hand, you’re just poking around to see what the building looks like, you may take your time and look around. You’ll probably make judgments about the decor. Maybe you’ll walk inside and pick things up to have a closer look.

If you were writing a description of the room, you’d probably state your perceptions (in the order that you perceived them), your emotional/intellectual reactions to what you see/hear/smell, and any actions you take in response. Typically, the experience unfolds very quickly—so quickly, you seldom pay attention to how one perception leads to another. Typically too, your emotional reactions are so small that they come and go without any conscious notice. Finally, your actions in response are typically small too: you close the door and leave, or you turn your head, or whatever. It may seem as if nothing has actually happened.

But it has. And next time, I’ll show some examples of how this plays out.

[Door picture from Wikimedia Commons by Sidheeq [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D