Decorating a Scene: Description in Narrative

Here we are on Memorial Day, and our peonies are in bloom. These showy, fragrant flowers were in every bouquet that my mother always made to set upon our family’s graves on what we then called Decoration Day. I look forward to their buds opening this time of year, not only because I enjoy their colors—ours are hot pink and creamy white—and their perfume, but also because they connect me to this family tradition. The flowers, then, are more than decorative. They’re also evocative. They summon an emotional response that comes from my mourning for a childhood, now gone, as well as a family, and a way of life. The flowers we leave on family graves now are made of silk and have no fragrance. Gone are the Mason jars or the coffee cans filled with peonies and irises. Gone are the car rides over gravel roads, those bouquets on the floorboard of a Chevy Bel Air’s backseat as my father drove to the cemeteries—to Berryville and Ridgley and Gilead. Gone are my father and my mother and the boy I was. This morning, a rain storm swept through and shattered some of our peonies, and now I’ve come to this post with a sense of time passing. We’ll make the turn to summer, and then the autumn will come, and the winter will follow, and the peony bulbs will sleep beneath the frozen ground, waiting for spring.

Time moves on, a fact that makes capturing just a bit of it all the more important. Prose writers deal with moments of time within a narrative and sometimes forget the importance of slowing down to decorate the vital moments of a story with detail. Concrete details convince readers that the events they’re seeing on the page are authentic. These details also create a specific mood or atmosphere. Finally, they filter through a point of view character’s consciousness to reveal why they matter.

Take, for instance, this passage from Richard Ford’s Wildlife. The narrator’s disgruntled father has left his family to fight a raging wildfire near their home in Montana. In this particular scene, the mother has driven the son near the fire, placing him as close as she safely can to the catastrophe that has lured her husband away from her. The scene ends with her asking the son if he can understand why his father has done such a thing. The son says he can’t. “I’m sorry we both can’t sympathize with him,” the mother says, subtly inviting the son to stand with her at this time when their family life is tenuous.

But first the son has to really experience that fire, as do Ford’s readers:

I opened my side and stepped out on the road just as she’d told me to. And the fire was all around me, up the hill on both sides and in front of me and behind. The small yellow fires and lines of fire were flickering in the underbrush close enough that I could’ve touched them just by reaching out. There was a sound like wind blowing, and a crack of limbs on fire. I could feel the heat of it all over the front of me, on my legs and my fingers. I smelled the deep, hot piny odor of trees and ground in flames. And what I wanted to do was get away from it before it overcame me.

Notice the combination of sensory details—the sight of the “small yellow fires,” the sound of the wind and the tree limbs cracking as they fall, the feel of the heat on legs and fingers, “the hot piny odor of trees and ground in flames.” There’s something about the layering of sensory details—sight, sound, touch, and smell, in this case—that makes a moment in a narrative undeniable. Such a combination immerses the readers in the moment as if in a dream. Notice, too, the concision of the description. Ford doesn’t over-decorate the moment. He finds the exact details that create the mood he wants. They demand a response from the narrator, and that response is a desire to escape the heat and the flames, and by so doing, although he isn’t aware of this, to make himself susceptible to an allegiance with his mother. Description persuades and evokes. It’s not just window-dressing. It pushes a narrative along while at the same time taking us deeper into character.

When I was a boy, I rode in that Chevy Bel Air, the air fragrant with the aroma of peonies. Within a childhood disturbed by my father’s anger, those car rides on Decoration Day were some of the most peaceful moments of my life. I wanted them to go on forever—that simple glide through the countryside, the windows down, the morning air cool and fresh, the suffocating heat of summer not yet upon us, the reverent tones of my parents’ voices as we placed the flowers on the graves. Then came the silence. For a few seconds, we stood there—a father, a mother, a son—humbled by the dead, and thankful to be alive.

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