Describing people

Just started (what I assume) is the latest lnspector Sejer novel* by Karin Fossum. Normally, I love her books, but I’m struggling to get into this one, mostly because for the first time I’m noticing the mechanics of the story, the stuff that, when you’re swept away by the writing, goes undetected.

There’s an excruciating passage on page 5 where she’s trying to flesh out two minor characters, a couple who are about to discover a dead body (lucky them!). She writes:

She brushed her long hair away from her cheeks and forehead. It was thick and brown with auburn streaks. She was petite, her face was small with a high domed forehead and round cheeks. She had tiny hand and feet, and indeed her husband would in more affectionate moments call her his ‘doll’. Reinhardt, too, ran his fingers through his hair. A short, sandy-coloured tuft stuck up at the front, it looked like a shark’s fin.

Why doesn’t this work (for me anyhow)? The answer: it’s too obvious that she’s describing people. It feels to me as if Kristine (that’s the woman’s name) and Reinhardt are messing with their hair for no other reason than to give Fossum an excuse to remark on it – and in Kristine’s case to tell us just about everything else she can think of about her appearance. Making it worse, this occurs in what feels like an interminable passage in which our two protagonists do almost nothing but stand by a lake while we hear all about their troubled marriage, Reinhardt’s domineering and childish personality, Kristine’s lack of self-confidence – when all we really want is the body that we know is waiting for us out there somewhere! Sorry if this sounds callous, but this is crime fiction after all.

I think that the only time that a writer can normally get away with extended descriptive writing is at the beginning of a scene, when we have not yet focused in on specific people, specific perspectives, but are peering at the scene as a whole, watching it come into view. I’d compare this to the kind of sequence you get at the start of some movies, where the camera pans around the setting for a while, before dropping down into the story itself. Once we enter the characters’ world, descriptive writing only feels natural if there’s a reason – a convincing reason – for one of the characters to notice the attribute being remarked on.

For example if characters Smith and Jones have never met before, it’s quite believable that they might notice something striking about one another’s appearance. A third character, MacDonald, who accompanies Smith but doesn’t join in the conversation might conceivably notice even more: this does tend to be the case when we are observing rather than participating. But if Smith and Jones are alone, know each other well and nothing in particular is happening – and yet the novelist starts describing one or the other of them in detail, the information feels incongruous. Who is noticing these details? You might get away with it in the kind of story where there is an intentionally intrusive narrator, but if the storytelling style is naturalistic then this kind of descriptive ‘anomaly’ will quickly undermine its authenticity.

* The Water’s Edge (ISBN 9781846551703)

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