In part 1 of the Art of Layering – adding those descriptive elements – I used a narrative example to show how it works in order to provide the reader more than just flat story telling. If the narrative is to keep the reader’s interest and carry the story’s momentum, there has to be more. Description needs depth.
The description of key scenes always needs a little more than just straightforward telling. And readers want more than just a couple of lines of drab description. They want to rip back the words and peer right into the soul of the story.
The art of layering gives them that.
Writers don’t have to go overboard with description; too much can kill the narrative sometimes, but it is what is encompassed within the description that counts. Give readers background and foreground, give them colours and sounds, give them characterisation; let them connect to your characters – give them immediacy and emotion.
But how much is too much? Well, there is no right or wrong; it is mostly down to common sense. You will know if there is just too much going on in your description because it will be obvious when you read it. If that happens then the reader won’t really have a chance to digest what’s going on; it would be like a dozen flashlights going on and off in the dark – the eyes wouldn’t know where to focus.
The best way to gauge if you have the right balance is to ask yourself if there is enough information for the reader. Is there enough background information? Is there enough sound and colour? Is there enough immediacy or pace? Is there emotion? Is there any atmosphere or tension? Is there any tone to the narrative?
In other words, are there any layers to peel away? Is there any depth?
If there isn’t, then add some. If you already have some of this in place, then see if it needs any more.
Below is an excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839):-
...I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, the fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently…
Now imagine this passage without the radiance, the blood-red moon or discernible fissures. Take away the fierce breath of whirlwind. Silence the long tumultuous shouting and the might of rushing walls. Remove the deep and dank tarn.
As a reader, you are left with little to work with, or imagine. There would be no sound, atmosphere, colour or depth. But Poe grabs hold of the senses by layering his description with different elements, this suffusing the reader’s imagination and bringing them right into the scene.
Another exponent of skilful layering is Nabokov. This excerpt is from Lolita (1955).
A cluster of stars palely glowed above us, between the silhouettes of long thin leaves; that vibrant sky seemed as naked as she was under her light frock. I saw her face in the sky, strangely distinct, as if it emitted a faint radiance of its own. Her legs, her lovely live legs, were not so close together, and when my hand located what it sought, a dreamy and eerie expression, half-pleasure, half-pain, came over those childish features. She sat a little higher than I, and whenever in her solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head would bend with a sleepy, soft drooping movement that was almost woeful, and her bare knees caught and compressed my wrist, and slackened again; and her quivering mouth, distorted by the acridity of some mysterious potion, with a sibilant intake of breath came near to my face…
Notice how he weaves colour, movement, simile, sounds, atmosphere and tone in this description without it coming across as forced or trite. His description allows the reader to participate in the scene; the sheer richness of it gives the reader more. It lets them imagine the colours present within the scene; they can imagine the sounds, the feel of it, thus enabling them to visualise it better, to become involved.
Here is another passage from another famous author, and equally famous book, Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien (1954), but without the layering that made the scene a whole:-
Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists. As the day wore on the light increased a little, and the mists lifted. Far above the rot and vapours of the world the Sun was riding high, but only a passing ghost of her could they see below, giving no colour and no warmth.
It’s a simple scene, yet there are too few layers for a reader to imagine much, however, if I restore the simile, tone, colour and atmosphere of the original narrative, the scene changes somewhat:
Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long-forgotten summers. As the day wore on the light increased a little, and the mists lifted, growing thinner and more transparent. Far above the rot and vapours of the world the Sun was riding high and golden now in a serene country with floors of dazzling foam, but only a passing ghost of her could they see below, bleared, pale, giving no colour and no warmth.
Without those extra layers for the reader to enjoy, almost the entire scene becomes flat.
As writers, we want the reader to let their imaginations run wild, to become a part of the story. Giving depth to your descriptions is just one way to do it.
Layering isn’t difficult. It’s about taking those significant scenes within your story, looking at them closely and finding out if they can be improved in order to make sure your reader is fully engaged. Give them layers to peel, give them a hint at what lies beneath the surface. Make them interested. Make them imagine.
So give them more than just words. Show them.
Next week: Tempt, tease and tantalise.