Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Zoned-in Description - using detail in your writing

 I think it was John Gardiner who said…DETAIL IS THE LIFE-BLOOD OF CREATIVE WRITING. If he did, he was right. the strange truth is, the more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes. Moving into close-up is absorbing.

You don’t have to describe everything around the location and setting of your work (often refered to in writerly terms as the milieu), for the reader to 'see' it. Imagery works far better when the writer ‘zones in’ on specific things, rather than trying to described everything. This is the ‘nuggets of gold’ method…finding the perfect item that will tell the reader as much as all the rest put together. 

What readers love the most, are the details of life as they know it and can recognise it, yet described with fresh, inventive eyes. A writer who can make such ‘commonalities’ appear new on the page will engage and entrance. I call this ability  zoning in. The strange truth is, the more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes. Skimming over a description loses the reader, zoning in absorbs him. By looking closely at the most interesting parts of the whole, the description is enhanced.Seeing it all is like being close to the screen in the cinema – too much information.
Samuel Johnson said, “The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.”  Don’t be afraid of detail – it makes all the difference – it is the complete opposite of writing huge swathes of description that skim over detail and bore the reader to sleep. 
So when you describe, rather than paint an overall picture, zone in to look at small details using symbolism wherever you can. Think about what the ‘core’ of the thing you’re describing might be. Naturally, this will depend on whether you’re looking at landscape, background settings, external or interior locations, objects or people. Here are some examples of what I mean:

Below, Charlotte Bronte uses description of landscape to draw us slowly towards the house she will later use almost as a character in the story. The delightful words…low, broad tower…galaxy…clashed…candle-light…the rest were dark…are designed to set up small mysteries in our mind. The punctuation might be a little out of date, but there is no doubt that this landscape sets up the reader for new experiences.
Again I looked out; we were passing a church: I saw its low broad tower against the sky, and its bell was tolling a quarter; I saw a narrow galaxy of lights, too, on a hill-side, marking a village or hamlet. About ten minutes after, the driver got down and opened a pair of gates; we passed through, and they clashed to behind us. We now slowly ascended a drive, and came upon the long front of a house: candle-light gleamed from one curtained bow-window; all the rest were dark…
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre 
Background Setting;
 In my children’s novel Sweet’n’Sour, I needed to describe the backdrop to my character’s life – Low Hee is eleven years old and from Malaysia – but the reader would want to get back to the story, so I chose to focus on his grandmother’s pig. 
Each morning, he boiled up the scraps for her feed and cleaned her sty. He loved grooming her with a stiff brush; she’d lie perfectly still for him while he scraped mud from her pink back. When he’d finished, he’d set out along the dusty road to school…
Sweet'nSour, Nina Milton

External Location
Note particularly, the ease in which this author uses the five senses…
He was standing on the wharf, peering down at the Delaware River while the sun beat on his shoulders. A mild breeze, the smells of tar and copper. A few yards away the Narwhal loomed, but he was looking instead at the partial reflection trapped between hull and pilings. The way the planks wavered, the railing bent, the boom appeared then disappeared; the way the image filled the surface without concealing the complicated life below. He saw, beneath the transparent shadow, what his father had taught him to see: the schools of minnows, the eels and algae, the mussels burrowing into the silt; the diatoms and desmids and insect larvae sweeping past hydrazoans and infant snails....
The Voyage of the Narwhal Andrea Barrett
Poet Carol Ann Duffy zones in deliciously when remember her bedroom as a child;
The single bed
was first a wooden boat;
stars translated for me
as I drifted away –
our cargoed winter house
dark and at anchor –

and then a Russian Doll
where I stilled in my selves;
six secrets or presents
under a thrilled tree...
Decembers from Bees, Carol Ann Duffy
Sarah Waters is a marvellous close-up describer. In this scene, the character, Viv, observes a room  she’s never entered. Waters then takes us as close to the stockings, towel and soap as is possible. This suggests that in describing, we are doing more than simply setting a scene or telling the reader what might be seen, we are entering the world of the character. The closer the author goes, the closer the reader gets.
There was a single bed, an ancient-looking wardrobe, a chair with cigarette burns and a little wash-basin in the corner that was coming away from the wall. A radiator, painted over and over with different kinds of paint, gave off a tepid heat. On the bedside table was an alarm clock fastened down with a length of wire. The clock said ten past six. She had thirty or forty minutes.
...She had been worrying about the dress all day, because it was crepe and easily creased: she took it carefully from the envelope and let it fall from her hands, then spend a few minutes tugging at it, trying to flatten out the folds. The stockings she had worn and washed many times; there were patches of darning, the stitches tiny and neat, like fairy-work. She ran them over her fingers, liking the feel of them, looking for faults.
The towel was yellowy-white and thick, like a baby’s napkin. The soap had fine grey seams in it. But she’d brought talcum powder and she dabbed scent, from a little bottle, on her wrists and throat and collarbones, and between her breasts. When she put on the flimsy crepe dress, and replaced her lisle-winter stockings with flesh-coloured silk ones, she felt as though she was in her nightie, light and exposed.
Sarah Waters Night Watch 
Here's the beginning of a story where the character is introduced mainly through a physical context in a specific locations – an allotment. We learn about the man through his activities and the way his allotment is kept. We’re never told that he is a little obsessive with a strong work ethic, or that he’s a painter, but we can more or less guess these things through the physicality of his world as we’re show through detail... yellow bone-handled knife for instance, which helps the reader make a picture in his mind and became very aware of the sort of man Robin is. 
Robin hoed between geometric rows of crops. His sweat dripped into the soil. The hoe travelled swift and firm along its weedless way, as if he’d been given a penitential exercise for an unknown sin.
He had come to the allotment to harvest the produce they would use during the week; the end product of previous sweat-dripped work. Lettuce, carrots, potatoes, beans and sweet round beets had been sliced through with the yellow bone-handled knife and placed in the boot of the old Vauxhall, placed to lie in careful compliment of shape texture and colour.
The spare tyre made good staging. He’d taken a thoughtful step back to survey his still life. It was more than just food; it looked spiritually appetizing. 
Girl in a Lilac Dress Nina Milton (Tees Valley Writer) 
Combining descriptions
You might want to describe more than one aspect of your milieu. Remember that zoned-in description, when done well, almost always describes more than that one isolated item. I call this multitasking.

  • To reveal character
  • To heighten identification with character
  • To add clues to the outcome
  • To deepen symbolism
  • To add jokes or moments of depth
  • To just add that extra zing – atmosphere that makes the reader feel they are ‘there’.

To finish here is the thriller writer, Frances Fyfield,  describing a new character in a new situation and place; that’s a lot all at once. To enable this, she makes the vista move and change – she starts by directing the reader’s attention on the most obvious item – the gates. She zones-in on detail, before taking our eye soaring upwards. She also uses sounds to great effect. Above all, you’re already concerned for this vulnerable character. Words like...pissed, strange, repel, sharp, plaintiv...suggest the start of danger, and the phrases...hum of noise and glow of light...build a haunting mood.
She was drunk, inebriated, intoxicated, pissed, something like that, no doubt about it. Plus a little something else which made these bright lights extra bright, and the colours of the vast wrought-iron gates very strange. Such great big gates, made to repel and attract multitudes, each thirty feet high and standing open, decorated with huge motifs of Tudor rose and curlicues painted turquoise, pink and purple without a single sharp angle. These gates rose to a point half the height of the domed glass ceiling inside. She noticed a single seagull wheeling above the building, its plaintive mewling audible above the hum of the noise and the profile of its wings caught in the glow of light which came through the roof...
Cold to the Touch  Frances Fyfield


  1. This post is really helpful. When I'm writing longer pieces, I often feel like I'm not working hard enough to convey setting. This has given me lots to think about!

    1. Thanks, Alison. I sometimes wonder if I write too much in a blogpost, so that's reassuring.
      I learnt the zone-in thing on my MA at Bath Spa, where someone was reading out a passage about their old school, trying to describe what the yard was like. "You've told us the yard is barren, sparse, desolate, neglected and decayed,' the lecturer said. 'Just choose one item that suggests all this and describe that, say, a single tree, withered, leafless, perhaps vandalized.' That said it all.