Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Worldbuilding and the Detail: On Patricia Hampl's "The Dark Art of Description"

I’m taking a Creative Nonfiction class this semester, and one of the first things we were assigned to read was the very thought-provoking essay “The Dark Art of Description” by Patricia Hampl. If you haven’t read it I highly recommend it-- you’ll find it in The Best American Essays 2009. There are plenty of reviews of this essay out there, so I’m not going to go that route; I’m not even going to talk about description in memoir, Hampl’s focus, seeing as CNF isn’t my main interest. I just want to share a few of my thoughts on Hampl’s ideas and how they can relate to novel-writing and fantasy in particular.

My fantasy alarm (which sounds something like a sword crashing against the scales of a dragon) went off immediately when I read “Dark Art” in the title, but I didn’t feel like the idea of description as a “dark art” was fully explored in the essay. Hampl does talk about how memoir differs from novel-writing in that budding novelists are frequently told “Show, don’t tell.” I can corroborate her statement, and I think it’s a good piece of advice. But it makes description seem like something forbidden, or to be used sparingly, as we advance the plot through dialogue and action instead of merely telling the reader what’s going on. A common trope relating to black magic or “dark arts” is that even the most innocent experimentation can lead to dire consequences. Often writers are fearful of playing with their writing, of trying new techniques and styles, particularly in a case like description where many of us have been trained to place a strict limit on how wordy we allow our descriptive passages to be. As a reader who occasionally skips longwinded observations on the protagonist’s bathroom wallpaper, I fully understand the author’s reluctance to include something that might bore her audience. And so description is a dark art, a mysterious and faintly ominous practice which we approach with extreme caution if at all. This, I think, is an interpretation of Hampl’s title that is valuable for our current discussion.

This essay could not have come to my attention at a better time. One of my weaknesses as a writer is that I drank the Kool-Aid when it comes to the “show, don’t tell” mantra. As I said before, I think it’s great advice, but I and many other writers have taken it to extremes, dropping description almost entirely in favor of action and dialogue, failing to set the scene, and making a mistake that is fatal to a fantasy novel: insufficient worldbuilding. Any fantasy fan knows that there is a certain suspension of disbelief involved in enjoying the genre. That said, a fantasy novel must still have a degree of believability, in that the world the author creates must be described richly and lucidly so that the reader has a framework for a) understanding the actions and beliefs of the characters and b) recognizing events as permissible according to the world’s rules. A fantasy novel with a poorly described world that serves as a murky backdrop cannot hope to immerse the reader sufficiently for the suspension of disbelief to take place. For example, imagine the Harry Potter series with the same characters, dialogue, and action, but only a few vague mentions or stray details of Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, the Burrow, and the rest of the wizarding world. It would hardly make sense, and while it might still be a decent story, it would be missing something integral and beautiful.

Hampl mentions the tendency of nineteenth-century authors, Henry James in particular, to “carry on” for pages and pages of seemingly unimportant observations. Hampl goes on to say,

“Carrying on, I was discovering, is what it is to describe. A lot. At length. To trust description above plot, past character development, and even theme. To understand that to describe is both humbler and more essential than to think of compositional imponderables such as ‘voice’ or to strain toward superstructures like ‘narrative arc.’ To trust that the act of description will find voice and out of its streaming attention will take hold of narration” (Hampl, 48).
This was my favorite passage from the piece. It called to mind the 1-inch picture frame discussed by Anne Lamott in her book on writing Bird by Bird. If you’re unfamiliar, she basically says that rather than allowing yourself to become overwhelmed by the idea of writing an entire novel, or even by thoughts of big concepts like theme and plot and character, you should give yourself a short assignment, something you could see in a 1-inch picture frame. I think Hampl’s details-- her description of one teacup, one painting, one dinner-- fit nicely in that frame. And for me, the most compelling and resonant bit of this passage was the last sentence. I’ve often noticed in my own writing that if I grit my teeth and slog through a description of a room or a table or a bookcase or whatever, I tend to learn something about the owner of that object, add subtle richness to my own vision of the world, and sometimes even find a fresh direction for the plot. Those moments of unexpected discovery, of finding more facets to the story you created than you ever thought could exist, are some of the sweetest and most encouraging times in your writing journey.


To sum up, while description may be a “dark art,” it is one that Hampl insists we must harness and exert our will over, taking care to use it only for the good of our stories. Fantasy in particular, with its inherent requirement of suspended disbelief, forces us as writers to create vividly detailed, convincing worlds. Focusing on one or two small details can be a revealing exercise that both keeps us from having nervous breakdowns over the immensity of the project before us and also can take our writing in surprising new directions. I challenge you-- and myself-- to practice the dark art of description with care and confidence.


Hampl, Patricia. "The Dark Art of Description." The Best American Essays 2009. Ed. Mary Oliver. Boston: Mariner, 2009. 43-52. Print.

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