December 21, 2014 by Laird
Here’s a brief essay I wrote for Biggest Aha Moments in Writing. It’s a great series.
Probably the most powerful epiphany I’ve experienced in learning to write has to do with the art of observed detail: what level of description is necessary to paint the picture.
Roger Zelazny was my first great literary inspiration. As a kid, I chewed through Nine Princes in Amber, This Immortal, Lord of Light, The Changing Land, and many others with a fervent obsession. Zelazny was as much a poet as anything else. His language was evocative and musical in a manner that remains unique to the canon. The landscapes he described, especially those found in The Changing Land and certain shadow realms of the Amber chronicles, were ornate and richly detailed to the threshold of sensory overload.
Yet, many years later upon poring through passages that had stuck in my imagination since childhood, I made a startling discovery: Zelazny’s prose was far more restrained than I’d remembered. As any accomplished magician does, he’d conducted a literary sleight of hand, creating an illusion of depth and detail from descriptions that bordered upon the austere. His technique was to describe a character or setting in broad terms offset by a scattering of specific details to sharpen the picture. He set the stage with phrases such as,
“The day of battle dawned pink as the fresh-bitten thigh of a maiden.” —Lord of Light
And a longer joint wherein Corwin of Amber describes being run to ground by his brother Benedict,
“His garments were filthy, his face blackened, the stump of his right arm raised, gesturing anywhere. The great beast that he rode was striped, black and red, with a wild red mane and tail. But it really was a horse, and its eyes rolled and there was foam at its mouth and its breathing was painful to hear. I saw then that he wore his blade slung across his back, for its haft protruded high above his right shoulder. Still slowing, eyes fixed upon me, he departed the road, bearing slightly toward my left, jerked the reins once and released them, keeping control of the horse with his knees. His left hand went up in a salute-like movement that passed above his head and seized the hilt of his weapon. It came free without a sound, describing a beautiful arc above him and coming to rest in a lethal position out from his left shoulder and slanting back, like a single wing of dull steel with a minuscule line of edge that gleamed like a filament of mirror.” —The Guns of Avalon
These examples are sort of the antipodes within Zelazny’s approach to staging, albeit both are economical within the parameters of what they’re trying to accomplish. The most interesting point about the latter passage is that not only does it vividly encapsulate a stormy relationship that has persisted for centuries, it also transmits a sense of immediate and awesome danger to the narrator and moves the plot forward. All in one fell swoop. The chief purpose of descriptive prose is to illuminate and to progress.
Horror in general relies on atmosphere, and the specific variety that I favor gains its power from the gradual and inevitable accretion of detail. Zelazny taught me that a surfeit of description isn’t necessary, but rather the deployment of effective words and only so many as are required.