I thought about this a lot as I was reading Karen Russell's SWAMPLANDIA! At first, the dense, thick, laden descriptions almost seemed too much, slowing down the narrative and making it hard to find my way in. But Russell knows what she's doing. The descriptions are absolutely essential to creating the semi-magical, otherworldly mood that makes the novel work, drawing us into the world of the Florida swamps and the possible supernatural experiences that lay within. I only accepted the strange pivotal events of the novel because all that mood work brought me so fully into the mindset of the main character - not through her thoughts but through Russell's descriptions of her environment.
I want to share an example of my own efforts to rewrite description in order to convey emotion. This is a brief excerpt from my novel THE SPARROW'S SECRET HEART, which I am in the process of revising. The scene is the funeral of the protagonist's mother.
"The funeral home looked like some rich person's grandmother lived there. It had perfect green grass out front and tall white columns and a big glass door with a brass handle. Inside was a fireplace with candles on top, some fat armchairs, and a tall, polished table all covered in lace with a vase full of fake flowers on it. A big picture of Momma sat next to the vase, and there was a black guest book with a fancy pen so people could write stuff about Momma inside. Some double doors opened on a little room full of chairs with a table at the front and a big wreath of flowers and a wooden stand and a microphone."
"The funeral home looked like some rich person's grandmother lived there. It had perfect green grass out front and tall white columns and a big glass door with a brass handle and polished tables with flimsy lace on top. Made me want to stick a wad of chewing gum somewhere. There was a fireplace with no fire in it, candles with no flames on top, and a vase full of flowers with no smell. One fat armchair stood in the hallway facing nothing, like anybody'd want to sit by themselves in a hallway staring at the wall. This long black book with a long black pen was spread open next to the flowers, waiting for somebody to come by and write something. In between the fake flowers and the empty book, Momma's picture smiled at me, flat and frozen."
Now, I know I still have work to do on the revised draft, but I think you can see the steps I've already taken to make the description carry more emotion and mood.
You can go too far with imagery, pouring it all over everything like Will Farrell ladling maple syrup on spaghetti in the movie ELF. So, how do you approach description without going off the deep end into a binge or tiptoing so carefully you miss opportunities? I think the sensory tango goes something like this:
1. Notice: Notice the world around you. Pay attention to your senses as you move through your own days. Constantly collect those observations and store them up in your mind so you have lots and lots to choose from when the time comes in your writing.
2. Conjure: When you sit down to write a scene, use words to conjure your stored up images. Choose the words carefully. Approach descriptive passages like poems. Wear the character's mindset and the mood of the scene as filters while you write.
3. Resist: Imagery is seductive. The juicy words and thick wealth of details will seek to pull you in at every moment. Play hard to get sometimes.
4. Give In: Hard-to-get is great, but occasionally you have to let imagery sweep you off your feet and carry you away. You can always dial it back later. A little wild abandon can lead to wonderful discoveries. That tension between resistance and giving in makes me call it a tango.
During the Teacher as Writer course I attended last week through Wordstock, instructor Joanna Rose gave us this exercise, which I believe she credited to author John Gardner:
A farmer has just lost his son in the war. Describe his barn. Without using the words "loss," "death," "tragedy," "son," or "war," convey the mood and emotional content of this moment.