C. S. Lewis and The Secret To Writing Descriptions in Novels

Descriptions have a really bad name in the world of publishing and writing. Apparently the present-day reader so dreads a passage of justified text, without any quotation marks, that we writers have to be advised to sprinkle the description in little by little amongst the dialogue. Is this because descriptions are bad,  only allowed in out of tolerance in the early days of the novel because readers then didn’t know better? Or is it because descriptions have been done so badly for so long that we have become conditioned to dread any words in which the fool of an author dares to speak to us as one human being to another human being?

My husband, Josh, is reading The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to our 6-year-old son, Ian. They read a chapter every night when I’m at school, 2 or 3 nights a week. Josh reads in a very dramatic style. He pauses to ask Ian for predictions about what might be coming next, or to play up a moment of high import. Apparently Ian does not find Lewis’ descriptions dull.

I never did either, to tell the truth. I always felt that something elusive but unusually gratifying was going on when I read them. It’s as if a dyslexic who can’t see letters or things in their proper order had suddenly found a pair of glasses to put on that magically straightened everything out. Only, the experience is warmer. It resonates. It doesn’t try to remake me, but appeals to what I already am. And I find that what I am is not a member of some external classification: no, I’m constructed in a certain way, according to a pattern – the human pattern.

This pattern is not just genes.

It is a pattern that involves a complex but ordered arrangement of energies – physical, mental, and spiritual.

Lewis proves that human pattern exists just by writing so successfully according to it.

Josh pointed out something this morning about Lewis’ descriptions that I’m writing because I don’t want to forget.

Lewis uses a predictable hierarchy in his descriptions. Try reading the following aloud, or at least in a whisper, to yourself.

(Edmund) had almost made up his mind to go home, when he heard, very far off in the wood, a sound of bells. He listened and the sound came nearer and nearer and at last there swept into sight a sledge drawn by two reindeer.

The reindeer were about the size of Shetland ponies and their hair was so white that even the snow hardly looked white compared with them; their branching horns were gilded and shone like something on fire when the sunrise caught them. Their harness was of scarlet leather and covered with bells. On the sledge, driving the reindeer, sat a fat dwarf who would have been about three feet high if  he had been standing. He was dressed in polar bear’s fur and on his head he wore a red hood with a long gold tassel hanging down from its point; his huge beard covered his knees and served him instead of a rug. But behind him, on a much higher seat in the middle of the sledge sat a very different person – a great lady, taller than any woman that Edmund had ever seen. She also was covered in white fur up to her throat and held a long straight golden wand in her right hand and wore a golden crown on her head. Her face was white – not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth. It was a beautiful face in other respects, but proud and cold and stern.

The sledge was a fine sight as it came sweeping toward Edmund with the bells jingling and the dwarf cracking his whip and the snow flying up on each side of it.

Sound and movement bracket the “suspended-time” description in the middle. The first is a herald, the second a fulfillment.

But the appearance of the various elements of the scene comes in a specific order.

First, the inanimate object and the lower animals. Next, the “son of earth,” the imaginary being that is rational but not spiritual. Finally, highest of all, the rational, spiritual, queenly creature. The description of trappings serves each of these elements in their place.

Much is made in the ensuing passages of Edmund’s misunderstanding and bad will, and how it skews his perspective on everything until he experiences repentance. However, I don’t think that this hierarchy represent his skewed perspective. Lewis tells us when something is from the perspective of a specific character, by naming that character. “Taller than any lady Edmund had ever seen.” Otherwise, he remains, as the author, very much in command of the story’s perspective. He even makes an occasional first-person appearance, not as a character but as the author or narrator.

(Later note: I have found examples to include that demonstrate my points, but my daughter is ill and will not tolerate another minute of her Nana paying attention to anything else.)

Contemporary American writing follows no such hierarchical rule, but it appears so very priggish in attitude by contrast. If I made a first-person appearance in a story as an author, rather than a character, I would not be told, by the writing establishment, how to do it better. I would be scolded.

If I wrote a poem that relied, for its sense, on an invisible but real hierarchy I would be scolded in the worst way for the “unclearness” of my writing.

In short, American society (and probably contemporary English society, too) is so thoroughly disordered that even the most bewitching of realists like Lewis are deeply misunderstood by the very people who want to make a film out of his story. I almost want to say, everything will shortly be given over to the green witch. But I’m writing in part for my husband here, for whom this was an important discovery. I think his optimistic conclusion would be that it is possible to write much better stories than we are writing now by observing order and heirarchy.

13 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis and The Secret To Writing Descriptions in Novels

  1. Alana, you mention “the very people who want to make a film out of his story”. What is your opinion of the recent films? I have heard some bad things about them from thoughtful Lewis fans.

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    • Yannis, I only saw the first film. It was fairly enjoyable as a movie, but as a representation of Lewis’ work, it was disappointing. I didn’t feel that I was seeing the people I felt I knew so well from the books, because the script introduced unnecessary and out-of-character conflict – and why would those people experience those conflicts? It’s my usual complaint. I also felt that (although I love Liam Neeson as an actor) Aslan was portrayed as so grave he was almost dull – as opposed to Lewis’ ethos of ‘the more divine you are the more real, alive, and energetic you are.’ I read somewhere that the producer of the film disagreed with the Christian assessment that Aslan is Christ represented fictionally. So that’s a huge misunderstanding right there!

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  2. These are good observations, Alana. I am currently writing my first novel, which is extremely difficult for me. Before this, I’d never written anything much longer than 20 pages or so. Now, I’m about three years into writing something that is sort of Narnian-LOTR inspired, but with a very different story line that also includes theology from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. I’ve struggled thus far with making descriptions interesting. This blog of yours has given me something to chew on. Thank you.

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    • You’re welcome! I’ve tried to write like that, too, and get bogged down. Unfortunately most of us do not have Tolkein’s education, not to mention his intellect!

      If you ever want a writing partner, send me a chapter or two and I’ll send you something of mine.

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      • Aye, most of us have neither the intellect nor the education of Tolkien and Lewis.

        I may take you up on the offer for a writing partnership. I have few chapters in the book with which I’m satisfied, though I did spend several months in hammering out the outline and I feel that part is mostly good. My wife gave me a good critique recently on my writing: she said that I need to read more fiction so I can better understand how to handle dialogue and story flow. I mostly read Orthodox theology and write about such things. I’ve got a lot to learn :)

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        • Nice. OK, so have you read ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’ yet? Also, I recommend reading lots of kid’s books. You get to see the principles of story telling more clearly since they are fleshed out in a less complex manner. A few Redwall books if you haven’t. Mmm, and any of the P.G. Wodehouse books. I really loved ‘The Voyage of the Narwhal’ by Andrea Barrett.

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            • Yeah, Brian Jaques is a story teller first, story writer second. He’s kind of rough and ready with how he uses his words, not as fastidious as some but I like his spirit. The first few books have some interesting implications for icons!

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        • Additionally… I’m the opposite of you. I can spin out pretty decent dialogue and action, but outlining is a nightmare. I think I have about 100 pages of outlining attempts for my comedy novel, and after doing that I pretty much lost all creative impetus for that novel. I’m going at it a little more easily on my latest attempt but it’s still sort of heartbreaking.

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