Textured Descriptions: Or, How To Describe Details Without Describing Details

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

My mental images are rather shadowy things, and trying to put into words something that I can’t see in gory detail was always problematic for me. I remember once, in a very early writing attempt, trying to “practice” writing a description. I tried to describe a room in a castle. I started by describing the carpet in as much detail as I could dredge up from my image-poor mind, then moved on to describe all the furniture in the room, the wall hangings, and a trunk in the corner. And then I read what I wrote, and decided I was hopeless at description.

This hopelessness was continually reinforced as I read what I thought ought to be good descriptions of things, but never could really “see” what the thing was. By the time I was done trying, I had less of an idea of what something was supposed to look like than I had before. I’d get partway into a paragraph, and my eyes would start to glaze over trying to make sense of long lists of details.

Background image:  Ellen van Deelen/Flickr (CC-by)

Background image: Ellen van Deelen/Flickr (CC-by)

I tried to finesse the problem. I worked around actually describing things. I’d give one, maybe two, important pieces of visual information. And then, rather than go into more visual detail, I’d try to get at how the object or person made me feel, rather than what they looked like. As I am not very visual, this “emotional picture” was more important to me than a visual picture anyway. I’d use actions or other non-visual detail such as smell or touch to describe things. My goal was to get others to get a “feel” for the thing, and hope it was enough. And I found, to my amazement, that people seemed to think I’d given a wealth of description when I thought I’d just given barely enough to get by on.

I thought about it, and paid more attention to the authors whose descriptions I did not skip over. I found they, too, only gave bare bones visual descriptions, but managed to convey the picture in other ways. And I realized that what they, and I, were doing were creating background textures rather than detailed drawings.

What do I mean by background textures?

In many drawing programs, you can fill in a large space with a texture, or visual pattern. For example, a texture labeled “forest” might be a swirl of greens and browns that gives the impression of a forest. Swirls of blues and white might give the impression of water. Textures work because the human mind is excellent at filling in details if the impression of the thing is close enough to the thing.

If you want to show a tiger in the jungle, you could draw an incredibly detailed jungle around the tiger, showing every tree, every branch. Or you could put the tiger in front of a “forest” texture of greens and browns that vaguely resemble trees and plants. The person looking at the picture knows instinctively that those greens and browns represent a forest. The mind fills the more nebulous greens and browns in with more detailed shapes that are perceived as jungle plants.

The tiger could also be shown as a texture rather than a detailed drawing by using a texture of black and orange stripes. A splash of dark red and sharp white triangles near the head area would give an instant impression of blood and teeth. Such abstract imagery can be just as effective as photographic reproductions. In fact, the abstract image can even be more effective by allowing our minds to conjure up all the details we associate with tigers, teeth, and blood rather than forcing us to see a specific detailed image.

The same principle can be applied to writing descriptions. Create the right impression, and the less critical details will automatically be filled in by the reader. This leaves the reader with the feeling that the object or place has been very well described, but without the frustrated feeling that can often accompany an overwhelming wealth of minute detail.

Textured descriptions are more lush than descriptions that depend on minute visual detail. Textured descriptions pull in other senses to create an emotional mood that represents and defines the object being described. A textured description evokes the shape and feel and atmosphere of the object in a way that gives the reader a sense of what the object is really about. When textured descriptions are done correctly, readers won’t ask for more details because they’ll have subconsciously provided any extra details they need for them to see what you are describing.

Consider the different approaches two children’s authors take with their first description of their villains.

In Redwall, Brian Jaques introduces us to Cluny the Rat:

Cluny was coming!

He was big, and tough; an evil rat with ragged fur and curved, jagged teeth. He wore a black eyepatch; his eye had been torn out in a battle with a pike.

Cluny had lost an eye.

The pike had lost its life!

Some said Cluny was a Portuguese rat. Others said he came from the jungles far across the wide oceans. Nobody knew for sure.

Cluny was a bilge rat; the biggest, most savage rodent that ever jumped from ship to shore. He was black, with grey and pink scars all over his huge sleek body, from the tip of his wet nose, up past his green and yellow slitted eye, across both his mean tattered ears, and down the length of his heavy vermin-ridden back to the enormous whiplike tail which had earned him the title: Cluny the Scourge!

Now compare Cluny with Manny Rat, from Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child. We first meet Manny when he runs across the toy mouse and his son in a dump:

A large rat crept out of the shadows of the girders into the light of the overhead lamps, and stood up suddenly on his hind legs before the mouse and his child. He wore a greasy scrap of silk paisley tied with a dirty string in the manner of a dressing gown, and he smelled of darkness, of stale and moldy things, and garbage. He was there all at once and with a look of tenure, as if he had always been waiting just beyond their field of vision, and once let in would never go away. In the eerie blue glare he peered beadily at father and son and his eyes, as passing headlights came and went, flashed blank and red like two round tiny ruby mirrors. His whiskers quivered as his face came closer; he bared his yellow teeth and smiled, and a paw shot out to strike the mouse and his child a rattling blow that knocked them flat.

Despite the fact that Cluny is described in much greater visual detail, I really don’t know what he looks like. I can list the words, but I, as a non-visual person, have very little sense of Cluny beyond the fact he’s rough and tough.

The description of Manny Rat has only a few visual details: he’s got a paisley dressing gown-like thing on, his eyes are red, and his teeth are yellow. None of the other details are visual. They are all emotional, or pick up on the other senses. He smells of darkness… that, to me, conveys a far greater sense of his “wrongness” than anything in Cluny’s description. He had always been waiting just beyond their field of vision… again, the eeriness of this gives me an instant sense of who and what Manny Rat is.

The description of Manny paints an emotional picture that has a far greater impact on me than Cluny’s battle with the pike or the description of his scars and whip-like tail. I don’t need to know if Manny has scars, or tattered ears. I know he’s stealthy, sneaky, and cruel. I know this in my gut. My mind will fill in the color and condition of his fur, the length of his tail, all the left-out details, because I know he is a rat. He’s rat-textured, but the picture around the texture is clear. I see the evil, and let my mind take care of the physical details.

If you struggle with creating good descriptions, look to see if perhaps you are trying too hard to be visual. Using a textured description is the corollary to using the “Show, Don’t Tell” principle for plot and characterization. The key is to evoke the emotional response you want the reader to have towards the object being described rather than giving a verbal snapshot that doesn’t leave anything for the reader’s imagination to do.

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