Writing Description: The John Updike Way

Show, don’t tell

Perhaps the most important piece of advice a book editor or book editing service can give is “show, don’t tell.” Often, as writers, we have a very clear idea in mind of who is saying what where when something is happening. However, creating that same image in our reader’s mind is the challenge we face. For best effect, don’t tell your reader that the sunrise was “beautiful” or even “spectacular”; instead, show that the sunrise “streaked the still gray sky with rosy pillars, illuminating the tops of the heavy clouds.” Allow your reader to see it and come to his or her own conclusion that it is beautiful. For example, John Updike, in his A&P, carefully describes the girls, but in Sammy’s words:

She had on a kind of dirty-pink – - beige maybe, I don’t know — bathing suit with a little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down. They were off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms, and I guess as a result the suit had slipped a little on her, so all around the top of the cloth there was this shining rim. If it hadn’t been there you wouldn’t have known there could have been anything whiter than those shoulders. With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty.

Updike (or Sammy) could have told us that “Queenie” was pretty, but he chooses to focus on the details of her clothing.

Make a scene

We’ll talk more about scenes in regards to plot, but, like what’s onstage in a drama, what surrounds your characters will only add to their development and the reality of what’s happening. In this, appeal to all the senses, not just sight:

  • What kind of light is there? Natural? Fluorescent? Are there colors?
  • Describe a scent. Perfume/cologne? Flowers? New paint? Has someone just popped a breath mint?
  • Besides the characters’ speech, is there a sound? Background conversation? Crickets? The creak of a rocking chair?
  • Is there something notable about how it feels? Is there a draft? Has it become uncomfortably warm right when all eyes have turned to our hero?

Of course, not all of this needs to be included at all times. But the right kind of description can heighten the effect of a scene. For example, note how Updike brings in Sammy’s surroundings to emphasize the sudden discomfort:

All this while, the customers had been showing up with their carts but, you know, sheep, seeing a scene, they had all bunched up on Stokesie, who shook open a paper bag as gently as peeling a peach, not wanting to miss a word. I could feel in the silence everybody getting nervous, most of all Lengel, who asks me, “Sammy, have you rung up this purchase?”

Visualize your characters as actors

Shaping a good character should take care of this issue, but it’s worth a second look. While good description can help us to visualize the character as a figure (i.e., looks, clothing etc.), good description can also help us to visualize the character as a person. For example, what does the character look like when angry? Does he or she have a nervous habit that might come out in an uncomfortable situation?

Queenie’s blush is no sunburn now, and the plump one in plaid, that I liked better from the back — a really sweet can — pipes up, “We weren’t doing any shopping. We just came in for the one thing.”

“That makes no difference,” Lengel tells her, and I could see from the way his eyes went that he hadn’t noticed she was wearing a two-piece before. “We want you decently dressed when you come in here.”

Here, we can see Updike drawing our attention to how people look—Queenie’s blush and Lengel’s eyes—to suggest emotion rather than attempting to tell us directly. Besides being a great writer, Updike was one of the greatest book editors of all time.

–Dr. Dan, Edit911.com, Inc.