“There’s a tendency to fear descriptive passages, as if they were unnecessary ornaments that inevitable slow the ‘action,’ notes Ursula K. Le Guin in her wonderful guide, Steering the Craft. And yet, she notes, a skillful writer can convey a landscape, character details, and daily life in a so lively a way that they become the action, the “onward movement of the story.” Le Guin goes on to explore this concept:
“In well-written, serious thrillers, such as John le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama, information about their setting, about politics, and so on, is in the same way integral to the story. Good mysteries are good at conveying information, too, from Dorothy Sayer’s classic Murder Must Advertise and The Nine Tailors on. In a fantasy such as Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings a whole world is created and explained, effortlessly and joyously, through a wealth of vivid, concrete detail, as the savory moves ceaselessly forward….
“Science fiction…specializes in getting an immense amount of information to function as part of the narrative.…Stephen J. Gould is a master at embedding complex scientific information and theory in strong narrative essays.”
What a wonderful challenge Ursula poses for us here: To bring our descriptive passages to life by making them part of the action of our stories rather than separating action and description. As she suggests here, one of the best ways to begin improving our craft on this front is to look at the work of master storytellers and see how they seamlessly integrate description into their tales in ways that advance action.
For me, Wuthering Heights springs to mind. Who can forget Emily Bronte’s riveting descriptions of the moors and the way the bleak landscape itself seems to seep into her characters and become part of who they are and what they do. Alluring landscapes—wonderful territory for writing dangerously, don’t you think? Write on!
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