In this video we look at two descriptions of the same place, which appear at different stages of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Although the place is the same, Smith is able to advance the story just by changing the sensory details on which she and her characters focus. Being able to do this, to show rather than tell, to use concrete description as an essential part of the story rather than a background, is central to how most writers work. But do remember that mimesis is not the only way to tell the story: there are many alternatives to the cinematic mode of narration.
Video transcript follows below:
A common mistake among aspiring writers is to use description as some decorative background to the story. Rather, choosing the right concrete detail is one of the main ways you tell the story.
Take this example from Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Near the start of the novel, she describes Howard and Kiki’s kitchen. She writes:
And now the two of them began to choreograph a breakfast in speechless harmony: passing the box of cereal from one to the other, exchanging implements, filling their bowls and sharing milk from a pink china jug with a sun yellow rim. The house was south facing. Light struck the double glass doors that led to the garden, filtering through the arch that split the kitchen. It rested upon the still life of Kiki at the breakfast table, motionless, reading. A dark red Portuguese earthenware bowl faced her, piled high with apples. At this hour the light extended itself even further, beyond the breakfast table, through the hall, to the lesser of their two living rooms. Here a bookshelf filled with their oldest paperbacks kept company with a suede beanbag and an ottoman upon which Murdoch, their dachshund, lay collapsed in a sunbeam.
What mood does this convey? Happy, stable, comfortable, entirely pleasant: they are sharing milk from a pink china jug with a sun yellow rim.
But of course stories are about journeys and changes. Things can’t stay happy for very long. We soon learn that Howard is having an affair with a woman at his work and, even worse, he has sex with one of his students – his academic rival’s daughter – at her mother’s funeral. Kiki finds out. The family is torn apart. Howard moves into a motel. The kids are distraught. Everything is completely miserable.
Later on in the novel, Smith describes the kitchen again. It’s the same kitchen, but it’s a very different description:
Kiki closed the sliding doors and went over to the cork notice board, where bills and birthday cards, photos and newspaper clippings were pinned. She began lifting the layers of paper, looking under receipts and behind the calendar. Nothing ever got taken down from here. There was still a picture of the first Bush with a dartboard superimposed over his face. Still, in the top left-hand corner, a huge button bought in New York’s Union Square in the mid eighties: I myself have never been able to figure out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat. Long ago someone had spilled something on it and the quote had yellowed and curled like parchment, shrinking between its plastic and metal covers.
Now the fan machine started up, conveniently loud and insensitive to nuance – mechanical background noise to fill up all the gaps in the room, in the conversation. Kiki sat down at the kitchen table. She worked a wood-wormed groove at its edge with her finger. She could hear Zora’s eggs sizzle and spit under the pressure of the cook’s impatience, the stench of burning pans already part of the process from the moment the gas was lit.
It’s a totally different mood, and we have a clear idea of how the characters are feeling. But al Zadie Smith is doing is giving a different set of sensory details about the same place. She gives the details that are appropriate to the story at this point. It’s not a coincidence that now that Howard’s sleeping with everyone he can, Smith mentions that the feminist button has had something spilled on it. What does it look like? “the quote had yellowed and curled like parchment, shrinking between its plastic and metal covers.”
What does the scene sound like? “Now the fan machine started up, conveniently loud and insensitive to nuance – mechanical background noise to fill up all the gaps in the room, in the conversation.”
What does it feel like? “She worked a wood-wormed groove at its edge with her finger.” The table was wood-wormed in the earlier scene, but Smith preferred to focus on the pink china jug with a sun yellow rim.”
What does it smell like? “the stench of burning pans already part of the process from the moment the gas was lit.”
All she’s doing is choosing the appropriate concrete detail that conveys how the characters are feeling.
If you want to practice this, try thinking about a place you know well: perhaps your present or former home. And then try to describe the sensory details you might notice depending on your mood. What would you focus on if you were afraid? What would you notice if you were happy? What might catch your attention if you were sad?
Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.
The thumbnail for this video uses a photograph taken by David Shankbone. This image is covered by a Creative Commons license: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zadie_Smith_3_NBCC_2011_Shankbone.jpg