Describe it to me

I was reading an interview recently with the novelist Yann Martel – author of the amazing Life of Pi, which I wholeheartedly recommend to you if you have not yet read it, for it is a luminous, surprising and beautiful piece of work.

Life of Pi has been turned into a movie (it’s had good early notices but I’m already grumpy about it and don’t hold out much hope). And the filming of Mr Martel’s book led to him musing on the relative strengths of pictures and the written word.

Words, he said, are quite bad at describing things – they are much better suited to describing emotions or ideas. He took as an example the section in Life of Pi when a boat goes down mid-ocean with all hands. This event is described in the narrative with just a single line: “The ship sank.” In the movie, one imagines, this piece of action is done rather more elaborately.

And the point he makes is a fair one is it not? The reason a picture is worth a thousand words is that it is much easier for us human beings to grasp how something looks in a single glance than it is to process a written description and make sense of that.

It is a point which used to be made to me regularly as a young newspaper reporter by the photographers who accompanied me on the crime beat. Whatever I wrote people would look first at the pictures.

So what do we writers do? Well, we play to our strengths – we say the ship sank, then talk about how people felt about the sinking.

In Song of the Sea God there is a section deep in the book where the main character – the Sea God of the title, builds a fabulous temple on the foreshore. It is architecturally both fantastic and grotesque. It would be quite a job to describe the whole thing in vivid detail – and I think if I had tried to do so I would have failed. So instead I describe some of it – pick out features and glimpses. I summon the spirit of it and I leave the reader to fill in the blanks. They build their own castle in their mind – at least that is what I hope they do.

While I was thinking through the process of people having visual things described to them and what they make of these descriptions, I came up with a good example. The Gloucester Cathedral elephant.

There are lots of interesting things in Gloucester Cathedral in the UK – the tomb of Edward the Second for example, the king who allegedly came to an unfortunate end at the hands of his queen and her lover when he was impaled unpleasantly on the end of a red-hot poker, or the stained glass window which includes the first recorded picture of a golfer (actually he was probably playing an earlier form of the game known as Bandy Sticks). But this is not a local history blog, so I shall stick to the elephant.

The elephant is carved as part of the decoration on the choir stalls of the cathedral and it is fascinating for the simple reason that it looks almost nothing like an elephant. It looks, for all the world, like the work of someone who’d had an elephant described to them, but had never seen one. Which is not surprising, given that this is exactly what will have happened.

Our craftsman, skilful as he was at carving, had clearly been given only a basic description of what an elephant was all about. They are large, have a huge nose and big ears. But from there he had to use his imagination to complete the picture.

So his elephant has what looks like a bull’s body and tail. It does have a nose stretching to the floor, though one which is rather awkwardly executed, as though he didn’t quite believe such a thing was possible. Finally he had to sort out legs – so he has given the thing cart-horse legs, complete with hooves. ‘There we go,’ he probably thought, ‘an elephant.’

And frankly, given he only had mere words to go on, he did a great job.

9 thoughts on “Describe it to me”

  1. Writing a book myself, that has got to be the hardest parts to write, the descriptions. I have worked on it and have gotten better, but my sister, who is helping me edit, is much better at it. Once I tell her what I see, she manages to write it down. Thanks God for her! That is her strength, mine is the dialog and the story itself. It’s nice to have each other to bounce off of. I think description is very important to the book, but you’re right, I hate ‘over’ description, I tend to skim it if it’s too long.

  2. Brilliant blog, friend Chris. And a very stretchy topic! But turning it around slightly – can we possibly run into a danger whereby too much reliance upon pictures can prevent us from accessing the ‘pictures’ in our mind? OK your carver’s elephant wasn’t realistic as he’d never seen one – but the concept of an elephant, as he saw it, is that not valid too? Is there not a justification for the ‘extending the mind’ beyond the words concept even though there are no accurate pictures to accompany them? Damn! You can tell I’ve been a Lay Advocate for far too long!

  3. Chris, great post, and a subject that has, strangely enough, been occupying my mind quite a bit lately! People are very image focused these days anyway, aren’t they? It’s been perplexing me because many of my internet friends used to be bloggers, but that all stopped when FB came on the scene. Now I see that even on FB, you mostly need an image with your status to get anyone to even pay any attention to it. They just don’t read anything that doesn’t have a picture with it, and yet they used to, they really did.

    I have a feeling, though, that this is more a current trend than the fact that pictures are better at descriptions. So, I’m pondering on what you say about this. In former times when there were no photos, no movies, and no digital anything, most people only had books, and the powerful imagery created by the writers of old was usually enough to get everyone’s imaginations going to produce pictures in their own minds. I mean think of the Bronté sisters and their depictions of Yorkshire! Very vivid.

    As for the elephant, I can imagine the carver was given a very rudimentary description of an elephant – possibly by someone else who had never seen one – but a real writer would do more to give something shape and form, and my own feeling is that a good writer can do more with words than any real picture can.

    Haha, I’ve taken an awful long time to disagree with you here, Chris. I’m really sorry. I do see your point, I really do, but I’ll bet you’ve done a great job of describing the temple. Even if you had a photo of it, it probably wouldn’t be as effective as your words – well, that’s my half cent’s worth anyway. Since people tend to respond emotionally to what they see anyway, the spirit you’ve captured is probably more important. Sorry, Sorry for rambling on so…..I’ll shut up now.

    1. I really enjoyed reading that Val – found it very interesting – I certainly wouldn’t say pictures are ‘better’ than words – just that it’s easier to grasp what something physically looks like by seeing it rather than hearing about it – that’s why eyes evolved I guess! Though if you want an example of something being able to ‘see’ through sounds then scientists believe that the ‘picture’ in the brain bats form of objects in the world through their sonar is likely to be as real and complex as the ones we form from the info we get through our eyes – bit of an off piste point that one I admit!

  4. Hi Chris. Don’t know if you remember me but we had a little email thing when Mills & Boon were doing one of their competitions. Great to see you have published your novel Song of the Sea God. I’m just about to submit my first to, er, Harlequin Escape in Australia.
    I can’t wait to see LIfe of Pi, the movie. There’s been lots of wonderful stories about the making of…I think visually it’ll be a real treat.

    Word Press hates me. It links me to twitter. If by any chance you wanted to visit me, my URL is:

    Happy Christmas!


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