Yesterday, Alan Orloff offered the post "Down with Description" in response to this week's question: "What's easiest and hardest to write: action, description, dialogue, or something else?"
Ironically perhaps, description is the thing I most enjoy writing—though that's not to insist that it's the thing my readers might most enjoy reading. Elmore Leonard's writing rules have persisted in popular culture for some very basic reasons. But as a short story writer, I have to point out that there may be a difference in descriptive passages in a novel versus in a story. Leonard wrote that "you don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill"—and that's likely good advice. But in a short story, where there's little room for excess at all, everything has to serve more than one purpose. Description isn't just description; it's also character or plot or theme or some combination of those folded into what looks on the surface like scene setting.
I had the great fortune a few weeks ago of being one of the first authors to contribute to B.K. Stevens' new blog "The First Two Pages," in which authors reflect on craft choices in the opening passages of their novels or short stories, and I ended up doing a big of reflecting on a long descriptive passage at the start of my story "The Odds Are Against Us"—with my own nod to Leonard's words. Here's an excerpt from my commentary on Stevens' blog—discussing how a description of the bar provides a portrait of both the bartender Terry and of the narrator, who's not only his current patron but also a friend:
Throughout the story, I wanted Terry to seem not just earnest but genuine in his friendship—guileless, generous, handing across that perfectly mixed gimlet with pride. I recognize (oh, how I do) that the long description of the bar is likely too much for a short story. Why not just sketch out the scene quickly? Why all that description? Isn’t this the very thing that Elmore Leonard’s Rule #9 warned all of us not to do? But I wasn’t intending to so much sketch out the place as to explain something fuller about Terry himself: more about that pride (“Murphy’s oil”), that attention to detail of his (“wiping everything clean, dusting and polishing the glasses, checking the fittings on the taps”), the desire to create a sense of hominess (“some coal… on a winter's night”). I also intended the description to echo in a different way the whole idea of what’s real and what’s not (and maybe what’s lasting and what’s momentary): “The bar was old school—not the slick mahogany and fresh brass and fancy martinis of some of those steakhouses that were cropping up downtown, trying to look like somebody. No, this was the real deal.” I hope there’s also a hint that experience has left scars, and that those experiences and those scars have a realness and a weight and a persistence too: “Black walnut bar top dinged and scratched over the years. Parts of it so sticky from spilt beer and liquor that they could hardly be cleaned….”
The full column can be found here.
In short, I love to write a detailed description—but I also try to have such passages serve a number of purposes.
As for what's hardest to write...well, that could be any of it at one time or another. I struggle at each stage of the process sometimes—inevitably. These days, I feel like I'm struggling with all of them.
In other news, I want to say how thrilled I am to have won the Agatha Award two weeks back for the short story I've been talking about here and how thrilled I am that both "The Odds Are Against Us" and my fellow Criminal Minds panelist Paul D. Marks' story "Howling at the Moon" have been named as finalists for this year's Anthony Awards, to be presented at Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, NC. (All the finalists can be found here, along with links to each of our stories.) Paul already gave a shout-out about this news in his column last Friday, but just wanted to add my congratulations to him here as well.