When we construct a narrative, either in fiction or creative nonfiction, we have to build a believable world from the particulars we create or remember. Our first obligation, then, is to notice everything. Joseph Conrad says, “My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” Consider the opening paragraph from Hemingway’s story, “Hills Like White Elephants”:
The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out the flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at his junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.
Notice how Hemingway so simply and elegantly sets the scene through the use of specific visual details: the white hills, the treeless landscape, the sun. He lets us see the station sitting between two lines of rails. He lets us see the curtain made from bamboo beads. He offers up the shadow of the station and shows us the man and girl sitting at a table.
It’s not enough to simply describe a place. The description should also be doing some other work. In this case, it’s setting an atmosphere. We feel the heat. We know there are flies about. We feel a simultaneous languor and oppression, which as we know, is crucial to the conversation that the man and the girl are soon to have at this crisis point in their relationship.
Description should also never neglect narrative momentum. At the end of this paragraph, we learn that the express from Barcelona is soon to arrive. With this piece of information, the narrative clock begins to tick. Each second that goes by, puts more pressure on the characters. By the end of the story, we know that the train is to arrive in five minutes. From the opening descriptive paragraph, we’ve hurtled forward to a moment of decision.
The end of the story is devastatingly understated. It’s also organic to the atmosphere that the opening description establishes and to the tone of the language in that first paragraph. Those simple, declarative sentences, lean and specific, are restrained and yet somehow urgent. They make a quiet sound, but there’s a pulsing beneath it.
Description fulfills its first obligation by creating a convincing world, but at the same time, it blends with character, action, and language to make possible the progression of the narrative. Those descriptive details aren’t just there to make us see. They’re also there, as Conrad says, to make us feel. Used wisely, those first descriptive details contain the entire story. From the opening description of the white hills, we’re moving toward the end.