As I read, I continually come across scenes in a book that make me sit up and take notice. I usually photocopy them for future reference… and this week, I thought I’d type them out for you and explain why I thought they worked so well.
These two excerpts both use description in a way that makes the reader feel as though they’re really there living the scene. I’ll give you the excerpt first, and then tell you why I think it worked so well.
Excerpt 1: from The Devil’s Edge by Stephen Booth.
The marquees and stands had been set up in the lower field, separated from the river by a line of trees. At the far end, the gymkhana arena lay in a natural hollow. As Cooper walked down the slope from the parking area, a brass band was playing a medley of James Bond themes. Goldfinger, From Russia with Love. The grass in the parking area had been mowed, but not removed, so the cuttings lay everywhere in deep swathes. They wrapped themselves around the tyres of the car, and covered everyone’s shoes. He found himself wading through heaps of wet grass all the way down to the show ring.
He stopped for a moment to watch a children’s entertainer in a sparkly blue jacket, who was talking to a dummy Afghan hound. The dog didn’t answer, except by whispering in his ear. What did you call a ventriloquism act where the dummy didn’t speak? He had no idea.
Cooper turned away. There were already too many people whispering to each other in this case. Why didn’t everyone say out loud what they thought? It would make life so much easier. His life, anyway.
The grass not being removed and sticking to shoes is a detail that makes us believe in the scene. Ditto for the medley of songs and the way he observes the layout of the area where the Riddings show is being held.
The children’s entertainer adds detail and his whispering to the dog makes Cooper think of the way everyone else is ‘whispering’ to each other… secrets which he finds frustrating in his efforts to solve the case. (The children’s entertainer also turns out to be significant in the story, so the segue from the entertainer whispering to the dog making Cooper think about people whispering could be a nice bit of sleight of hand by the author to draw our attention away from the entertainer.)
Excerpt 2: from Flash and Bones by Kathy Reichs (William Heinemann 2011)
‘Winge was enormous, perhaps six two, three hundred pounds, with thin brown hair tied into a pony at the nape of his neck. His khaki shirt was mottled with soil, its underarms darkened by large half-moons…’
‘…Slidell and I took a moment to observe our target. Winge’s face was tanned and creased from hours in the sun, making it hard to pinpoint age. His cap lay on the table, sweat-stained to the belly of the number 3 centered over its brim. A cross hung from a chain around his neck.
In addition to size, the man’s other striking feature was his stillness. Winge sat with fingers laced, eyes down, perfectly motionless.’
I liked the contrast of the man’s size with his stillness. Often, size is related to strength and power, and perhaps used as a threat.
The details provided ensure that we really ‘see’ this character. It’s easy to describe a very large man, but details about the shirt being ‘mottled with soil’ and having ‘large half-moons of sweat’ under the arms remind us that he is a manual worker, as does the sweat-stained cap ‘to the belly of the number 3’.
Nice job. Next time you are describing a character, think about what details you can include that reinforce other information in the scene about that person’s job/personality/socio-economic status and so on.