Writing tips: Descriptions that reveal characters’ relationships
THIS WEEKEND in a hostel in Futalefu, Chile I found one of my all-time favorite books, Cathedral, by Raymond Carver.
I’ve read the stories in this book probably half a dozen times each and still keep finding new layers.
Yesterday I noticed this passage in the story “Careful.”
As a quick set-up: the protagonist Lloyd is separated from his wife Inez, and has moved into a cheap attic apartment where he lives by himself and tries to deal with his drinking problem. After not having seen each other for a long time, Inez comes to visit.
“Hi, Lloyd,” Inez said. She didn’t smile. She stood in the doorway in a bright spring outfit. He hadn’t seen the outfit before. She was holding a canvas handbag that had sunflowers stitched onto its sides. He hadn’t seen the handbag either.”
As I read and then reread this passage I realized something about the way I usually write descriptions and the way most other writers write descriptions, and how this description of Inez was different: it reveals not only what the narrator saw but how he saw it.
Remember that he hasn’t seen his wife in a long time. Then notice the order of what he sees: (a) her face [and the fact she wasn't smiling], (b) her outfit, [noting that it's an outfit he hadn't seen before], and then (c) a new handbag.
Most writers seem to describe scenes and people in a way that seems just that–descriptions. For example, they might describe the scene listed above as: “She stood in the doorway wearing a spring dress and holding a handbag. She wasn’t smiling.”
There’s nothing “wrong” with that description, but it doesn’t convey much about the way the narrator sees this character. It says, essentially, that he sees her as just a woman standing in the doorway without smiling.
Compare this with all the unstated emotions conveyed through the way Carver ordered his descriptions of Inez. The first thing he notices: “She wasn’t smiling.” This implies that he may have hoped she would be smiling, or perhaps he’s simply resigned that she isn’t happy to see him. However you interpret it, what matters is that the first thing he noticed was her face.
Sometimes even before writing it helps just to work on your observation skills.