I love pictures. They speak volumes, inspire so much, and make me feel so much. They are more than a painting or snapshot; they are frozen moments of unique expression. That is the way of great art.
That is the way of great description, too. In Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl, I noticed such details on the first page of the sample:
She was born Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, and she did not open her eyes for three days.
The pacing queen directed ministers and physicians to the crib. They listened to her breathing and her hummingbird heart, felt her fierce grip and her tiny fingers soft as salamander skin. [emphasis added] All was sound. But her eyes did not open.
This passage works on several levels. Taken in context, the details reinforce the first glimmer of tension: What is wrong with Ani? Why isn’t she opening her eyes? To highlight this unusual problem, Hale focuses on hearing and touch, drawing us closer into Ani’s sightless world--without dipping into her point of view to do so. Not an easy task, that.
Beyond drawing us in, the details “hummingbird heart” and “fingers soft as salamander skin” also focus us on Ani’s fragility. Neither creature mentioned is a tough. In addition, these creatures inspire thoughts of a related concept: smallness. We can easily connect smallness with a newborn, which further supports the sense of Ani’s vulnerability without creating a feeling of redundancy. Yet, despite making us worry about Ani’s condition, Hale works in more than pity. She works in a drop of strength, one tied to a little mystery. With the “fierce grip,” we feel that something is building, that there is something more to Ani than vulnerability. In fact, it reminds me of a Seabiscuit quote about the eponymous racehorse: “Though he be but little, he is fierce.” We are already expecting Ani to be someone tougher than her “size” or circumstances.
All that creates good description, but on this first page, Hale raises the bar with the interest-snagging originality of her description. She does this first by delivering the unexpected: focusing on non-visual senses during the physicians’ examination. Then, the metaphor and the simile are great. I have never compared anything’s heart to a hummingbird's wingbeat, nor have I compared anything to salamander, much less in a positive fashion. But the mind latches onto these sensory details and understands them.
In fact, the mind understands these details on several levels. That is what great description, like great pictures, does: It gives more than anyone expects.
Hale, Shannon. The Goose Girl. New York: Bloomsbury, 2003. Kindle e-book file.
Seabiscuit. Dir. Gary Ross. Perf. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, and Elizabeth Banks. Universal Studios Entertainment, 2003. DVD.