Just enough: Lorrie Moore and the power of description

Last night I started reading Lorrie Moore’s novel A Gate at the Stairs. I’m a fan of her short stories and am interested in seeing how her style pans out in a novel. Whereas I have always been an avid reader, now I can’t help but read and dissect a little as a writer, asking ‘why is this working for me’, ‘how come I’m getting into this book and liking it when another sits begun but not continued on the bedside locker’.

Apart from the opening, the character sketch and the outline of place both of which were just enough to get me settling back into my pillows, book balanced in hand, with a satisfied sigh it was the quality of the detail that struck me.

A good example of what I am talking about is the following passage:

Two slate steps led, in an odd mismatch of rock, downward to a flagstone walk, all of which, as well as the grass, wore a light dusting of snow – I laid the first footprints of the day; perhaps the front door was seldom used. Some dessicated mums were still in pots on the porch. Ice frosted the crisp heads of the flowers. Leaning against the house were a shovel and a rake, and shoved into the corner two phone books still in shrink-wrap.

We get an idea of the house, not in terms of what it looked like per se but in terms of the character’s impression of her surroundings as she approached. The shrinked wrapped directories would stand out.

She continues:

The woman of the house opened the door. She was pale and compact, no sags or pouches, linen skin tight across the bone. The hollows of her cheek were powdered darkly, as if with the pollen of a tiger lily. Her hair was cropped short and dyed the fashionable bright auburn of a ladybug. Her earrings were buttons of deepest orange, her leggings mahogany, her sweater rust-coloured and her lips maroonish brown. She looked like a highly controlled oxidation experiment.’

A Gate at the Stairs: Lorrie Moore

The description is masterful – unique and original without being overly metaphorical or jarring. The physical descriptions are not purely physical, they say something about the person’s internal landscape.

The ‘university’ of short story and flash fiction writing has taught me how vitally important it is to choose exactly the right detail, the most layered (but not overtly so) phrase to say as much as possible in few words. One of the aspects I enjoy most about editing is recognising a redundant or superfluous phrase. One sentence is always better than two. The constant pursuit of precise pithiness in writing short stories provides a good measure for what really matters in a story and the skill can be carried over to novel writing that way.

As a reader I am fan of lyrical writing but I also enjoy the sense of being carried along rather than being swallowed up in paragraphs of dense description for the sake of it. When we perceive for real we make quick assertations, processing impressions fleetingly to get a handle on our environment. Only as we spend lengths of time, perhaps even years in a place do we get a sense of slowing down, detail coagulating. So more detail could be added to a piece to signify the accumulation of years and related objects.

What we need to learn to do, by reading and by constant practise is to gain an innate sense of how much detail is ‘just enough’ for the particular situation and for the likely reader whether introducing a character, place or moving the story along. This is our judgement call as a writer. Getting it right is the mark of a fine observer, psychologist and wordsmith.

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One comment

  1. Excellent post, Alison, with wonderful observations about the amount and type of detail needed by any one story.

    I love Lorrie Moore’s short stories, and now can’t wait to dive into A Gate at the Stairs!

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