Writing and Shit – part 38 – Descriptions which are crap because they’re too good



 Welcome back. I hope you’ve been keeping well.

We have already looked at written-about places in several ways. We know that a story happens because a person or thing is in the wrong place. (A story takes place.)

And we’ve built an entire haunted house up, out of a flat white space, as a fitting place for one kind of story-time.

And we’ve already seen, with our dirty Venetian blinds, how the description of a place can become extremely separated from the speech or action that happens in it.

We’re soon going to start thinking about point of view, and then point-of-view-and-time, and it’s a big, important subject for writers – probably the biggest – but point of view is just as closely connected to place.

I don’t mean this just in the sense of sightlines, the basic fact of where someone’s eyes are, and how good their eyesight is.

Two people can be side by side, and to look at them you would say they were ‘in the same place’, but they are not. They are occupying nearly the same space, in terms of geolocation, but they are probably in completely different places.


We’ve had one example of this – the Eiffel Tower is not the same place for the waiter who works there and for the young woman from North Korea.

And neither is it the same place for the waiter who works there every day and the waiter who is working his very last shift there.

What the employed waiter and the sacked waiter look at is the same Paris view, in terms of where buildings are, but what they see is entirely different.

He won’t always have Paris

The employed waiter sees routine Paris and, because of this, probably doesn’t see it very well. He will notice differences from the day before. Say, a car has caught fire down by the Seine and is sending up smoke. He will look at the flames, the smoke. But if he can’t find anything different in Paris today he will just look in Paris’s general direction. It will be the same to him as the paving stones we don’t see, or take in in any way, as we pass over them. Or if not the paving stones, the chewing gum stuck to them. When was the last time you noticed that? Try noticing it next time you go outside. Make a mental inventory of all the objects you pass – the crisp packets in the gutter, the moss growing towards the edge, the cigarette butts.

The sacked waiter sees last-day-at-work Paris. He sees better-take-it-all-in-because-I-won’t-be-coming-here-ever-again Paris. He sees Paris intensely and emotionally and he sees it well.

Any writer, because it would be a story rather than a non-story, would likely choose to show their reader Paris through the sacked rather than the employed waiter’s eyes.


What most good writers would be very wary of is showing their reader objective Paris or wonderfully well-described Paris and then attributing this version of Paris to their waiter.

Yet many starting writers always try to describe the world objectively (as it is in itself) or wonderfully well (as a wonderful writer can bring it into language) rather than specifically (as it is for one particular person at one particular moment in their life).

Don’t fall into this mistake.

What these objective or wonderful writers leave out is time. As soon as they launch into a wonderful descriptive passage, they stop the clock. This is exactly what you saw me doing with the Venetian blinds description. Whilst they were being described, no-one there in the cafeteria had a chance to swallow a mouthful or even to blink. They were freezeframed, waiting for the description to conclude. And the description went on and on. When it finally exhausted itself, someone was able to speak out, to move. The story was able to resume. Something happened. Something was allowed to happen.

This description was close to doing one thing at once – showing the reader the Venetian blinds wonderfully well.

Life is first terror

The problem is that most people, most of their lives, don’t have time to do things wonderfully well. They are preoccupied, or panicked, or upset, or bored. They are feeling an emotion or in a state that takes them away from full focus on the thing they are doing. They do it with 60% or 20% of their attention.

The employed waiter is 20% seeing Paris, at best. He’s maybe 45% thinking of how many tips he needs to make to pay his bookie. 7% tasting his cigarette. 13% looking at a woman in a short yellow skirt.

The sacked waiter is doing his melancholy best to see Paris as well as he can, to see it 100% – cram it into his head. He knows he has only a very limited time left to look at it, but his emotion is getting in the way. Much of his percentage is being taken up by memories, regrets.

The way the Venetian blinds were described is what you might call ‘leisured’. And much of what is written, as descriptive passages in novels, is also leisured.

The writer at their desk has taken their time, has really put in the hours, in order to describe the blinds as well as they can be described. And what they’ve ended up doing is describing the blinds in a way that no-one apart from a writer at their desk, putting in the hours, would ever think to describe them.

(How would a policeperson describe them? ‘We’ve got these really bloody disgusting what do you call them? blinds in our canteen – I mean, dust yay thick.’)

This level of description is fine if your narrator is a writer, or writer-type person. In other words, if they are a leisured person.

But if they’re under any kind of time-pressure, the way they perceive something will be to do with grabbing what them need from it and then passing on.

Too many times I read descriptions in stories and novels that are crap, because they’re too wonderfully well written.

Also, if you’re in the shit, this kind of writing takes up too much of your desk time. When you come to something that needs to be described, try to do it in a single sentence. If you can’t do it in a single sentence, try to do it in two. Etcetera.

Exercise: Write two descriptions of the curtains in a room you know well. The first description should really take time out to do them as wonderfully well as you can. Look up words in the dictionary. Be as leisured as you care to be. The second description should be a single line, to convey how the curtains appear to someone who has just rushed in and is looking for somewhere to hide in that room. Think about the differences between the two kinds of description. Think about how time has had an effect on place.

Same time, same place – and don’t we just know it?

One thought on “Writing and Shit – part 38 – Descriptions which are crap because they’re too good

  1. Pingback: Writing and Shit – part 37 – Writing, fast and slow | tobylitt

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