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Employ the Gamut

Posted on Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 10:59 PM

Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, metaphors, imaginative references, all evoke the senses as fittingly and compellingly as possible.

By Peter P. Jacobi

My focus a couple of months ago was on description, its significance for a piece of writing and its complications for the writer. I return to the subject this month.

And, yes, as I do so, I announce firm adherence to the principle of "show versus tell," that although we often also have to "tell" about a subject by providing its background and explaining its existence or modus operandi, we greatly benefit a story by "show," using narration and description, which, in turn, benefit tremendously from writing that operates on nouns and verbs.

But let's not forget that, as author Brian Cleary says, "Adjectives are words like yellow, sleepy, slumping, somewhat mellow. They give us lots of great description, like tall, left-handed, young Egyptian. They paint a picture using words like friendly dog or baby birds, spotted, nearly rotted fruit, peppered eggs, and leopard suit." Cleary argues charmingly and persuasively in his little book for children, Quirky, Jerky, Extra Perky, More about Adjectives (Millbrook).

So, though in my opinion, nouns and verbs remain at the top of the list of tools for effective description, we shouldn't forget how modifiers like adjectives and adverbs can add to the descriptive confection.

Guiding the Reader

For instance, when Alexander Theroux some years ago wrote "How Curious the Camel" for Reader's Digest, he used them all. "A camel has been described as a horse planned by committee," he said. "It has a comic munch of a face -- loony, serene and disgusted all at once -- with liquid eyes that shine bottle-green at night. Its eyelashes are as long as Ann Sheridan's. Its large nostrils can close against blowing sand. A ruminant, it chews its cud, and its floppy lips, seemingly insensitive to thorny plants, cover teeth long enough to eat an apple through a picket fence. You can almost chin yourself on its bad breath."

The trick, of course, is to harness the verbal tools so that they mesh, so that the descriptive copy works smoothly and vividly, so that the language doesn't jar or seem forced or phony, so that the purpose of your piece is well served. Descriptive writing shouldn't get in the way. It should help guide the reader down the road toward an intended place or thought or moment or point of view. Know clearly what you are describing and why and how best to get the task accomplished. Then do so.

Picturing the Scene

Maybe you want to scene-set, as does Ron Geatz in a Nature Conservancy publication titled What Will Be Your Lasting Legacy, his feature about natives of northern Australia returning to "heal their homelands." Geatz writes: "Standing atop the red cliffs of Fish River Gorge ... it's difficult not to indulge in a fantasy of nature primordial. More than 100 feet below, fish are clearly visible in the crystalline water. Flocks of squawking white cockatoos soar through the riverine forest, and wallabies dart in and out of view. Beyond that: woodlands as far as the eye can see -- and no sign of people." The picture emerges.

Emerging Storylines

Maybe you need to establish circumstances, as did David Grann in a New Yorker article, "The Lost City of Oz," devoted to the search for signs that might explain the disappearance in 1925 of a British explorer, Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. "In the summer of 1996," Grann tells us, "rains flooded the Amazon, rendering it virtually impenetrable. Bridges were swept away, and, amid vast stretches of mud, small holes appeared where cobras and armadillos had buried themselves. Then the sun came out and scorched the region. Rivers sank by thirty feet; bogs became meadows; islands turned into hills. Finally, after months of waiting, a team of Brazilian adventurers and scientists headed into the jungle, determined to solve what has been described as 'the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century.'" The story emerges.

Making a Point

Maybe it's lighthearted recall you aim for, as in Jesse Kinley's "Whatever Happened to First Class?" for the Travel section of the New York Times: "As a longtime veteran of the coach cabin and all the horrors therein -- the battles for overhead space, the wheelie-bag traffic jams, the knee-numbing legroom -- one can only imagine my thrill when I boarded a recent American Airlines flight from San Jose, Calif., to Dallas. There I was, after all, in the first row. My seat was wide, the armrest was enormous, and the guys behind me were talking, businessman style, about real estate and golf, bankruptcies and bogies. This was the high life, I figured, a conviction that only intensified when the flight attendant approached with a silver tray and addressed me -- unprompted -- as 'Mr. McKinley.' Then he handed me a towel.

"Or sort of," continues McKinley. "Maybe it was more of a wipe? It was basically the size of a cocktail napkin. Or perhaps it was a piece of the pilot's long-lost security blanket. Whatever it was, it was marginally warm, borderline damp, and had the unmistakable, oft-used texture of a bargain washcloth.

"Ah, first class." The point is being made.

Recreating with Description

Maybe it's Bob Considine's classic report in 1938 of the Louis-Schmeling championship boxing match, in which description and narrative naturally merge. A few seconds after Schmeling "landed his only punch of the night," wrote Considine, "Louis caught him with a lethal little left hook that drove him into the ropes so that his right arm was hooked over the top strand, like a drunk hanging to a fence. Louis swarmed over him and hit with everything he had -- until Referee Donovan pushed him away and counted one.

"Schmeling staggered away from the ropes, dazed and sick. He looked drunkenly toward his corner, and before he had turned his head back, Louis was on him again, first with a left and then that awe-provoking right that made a crunching sound when it hit the German's jaw. Max fell down, hurt and giddy, for a count of three.

"He clawed his way up as if the night air were as thick as black water and..." etc. Step by step, moment for moment, the descriptive narrative is re-creating the historic fight.

Employ the Gamut

The examples above differ because of writing styles and because the topics called for difference. But their writers employed the gamut: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, metaphors, imaginative references, all to evoke the senses as fittingly and compellingly as possible. Not a one probably was easy to write. Description is hard; good description is harder. But the shapers of those passages succeeded. They knew how far to go and how best to convey scene or situation.

You can do so, too.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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