I read a short passage in Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box the other night and I liked it so much, I wrote it down and am here to burden you with it. It’s a short passage. Here it is:
“She glared at Jude, saw he was dressed, black Doc Martens, ankle-length duster.”
Wow, you’re thinking, I’m so relieved you brought that to my attention. But, to me, this is a great example of what I like to think of as totally utilitarian physical description. Joe Hill is not the most concise writer I’ve ever read (I recently read Justin Torres’s We the Animals which re-defines concision in a way I’m not totally crazy about), but he’s got a great eye for the telling detail and he’s very precise and direct with physical description. And his descriptions, like this one, work for you, consider your experience, your busy day, and your ability to think for yourself. For me with physical description I’m always thinking, what have you done for me lately?
This description comes about a third the way into HSB in which we’ve met aging rocker Jude Coyne and learned the reasons that he’s now being haunted by a ghost who’s trying to ruin his life and drive him insane as quickly as possible. We know Jude’s lived hard, spent a lot of time on the road. We know he’s a rock and roller and probably dresses accordingly, and in six words (black Doc Martens, ankle length duster) Hill confirms this and then some, totally filling in the gaps for me about what Jude looks like and how he carries himself. He looks like a bit like The Punisher, another Doc and Duster wearing bad ass kind of fellow.
Physical description should always be doing more than describing what a person looks like. I don’t care if a guy has blue eyes, but for God’s sake, use them. Description should be working for the character, and therefore, for the reader, dealing with characterization as well as description. Only a select number of people leave the house in black Doc Martens and an ankle length duster and Jude is one of them.
Here’s how Hill might have written the same description if he wanted to make it a lot worse: “She glared at Jude, saw he was dressed in a pair of gleaming Doc Martens, the yellow stitching running up their sides like broken lines down an endless highway. The shoes were old and broken in and Jude rarely wore any others because they felt so good. Nothing fit him quite like his trusty Docs. His duster was ankle length and also black and tickled the shoes as Jude walked. Its leather had worn with the years and was now soft and supple and fragrant with the many years of his life.”
This description, instead of working for the reader, throttles her with information. Its greater sin, though, is that it doesn’t put a whole lot of faith in the reader, not nearly as much as Hill’s six words do, which allow you to fill in the gaps for yourself.
If you can deliver the effect of ten words with six, or even better, twenty words with six, keep the six. Kill the rest.