Monday, March 2, 2020

The Secret Uses of Description

Yes, using a picture of my kittens to draw a few readers is utterly shameless. It is a draw from the non-writer crowd and totally exploits my cats, who get none of the proceeds from my posts. However, little Dinkum and Hinkum here have a purpose other than being cute, and it is all about what writers can do with description.

Dinkum (left) and Hinkum
My real inspiration for this piece comes from the John le Carré quote that referred to a cat. "'The cat sat on the mat' is not a story," he famously said in the first part of his often-mentioned line, referring to how there was nothing particularly telling about that line. After all, cats sit on things. Mats are often sat on, particularly by cats. It's a very blah sentence. Now, we can spice it up a little with some description, but this is not just the simple task of filling in the scene. Our description must not only contribute to the scene, but make it into something more.

Now back to Dinkum and Hinkum. If one of them was the referred-to cat on the mat, what are some descriptions we could use to fill in the previous sentence? We could use simple words like cute, adorable, and such, and they would count as contributors. However, what did we actually add to the story? "The cute cat sat on the mat" doesn't really offer anything new. Most cats are cute, so the reader is pricing that into the sentence. Cute and adorable are descriptive, but they don't say anything that's already assumed. As the saying goes, "Dog bites man" is not news. "Man bites dog" is news.

We could advance the description to their colors. In a story, I would need to point out that Dinkum is gray and white while Hinkum has the more distinct black-and-white markings. Now, the gray-and-white cat sat on the mat tells us which one. That's a little more information and definitely an improvement upon cute or adorable, but not by much. The sentence has more words and some more information, but it does not offer us anything outside the realm of the original sentence.

Did I mention that these little darlings are rescues? They were abandoned when they were two weeks old and I needed to dropper-feed them several times a day for almost a month. Why is that important? Look what happens when I turn that into a descriptor. "The rescued cat sat on the mat." That one word now turns the sentence into something that interests the reader. The description hasn't just filled in the blanks, but offered a new set of blanks that the readers wants to find out about. Our previous descriptors gave us image but little substance. "Rescued" offers little in terms of image, but makes it a story.

When we use description, we can use it to not just fill in, but build onto the story. Cats can be cute or adorable, but describing them as being rescued, feral, zombies, and so forth adds not just to the sentence but the story. Same with the verb. Sat is simple, but sat patiently implies the cat is waiting for something in the next sentence, eagerly gives some urgency, and so forth. As for the mat, if we describe it as the dog's mat, we sense impending conflict. One descriptor creates a lot of story.

The full John le CarrĂ© quote was, “The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.” He emphasized the addition of the descriptor to mat rather than cat, which counts as well. However, I chose to emphasize describing the cat so I could show the picture of my kittens. Aren't they adorable?

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