I recently got round to reading Scott Lynch’s The Lies Of Locke Lamora, and thoroughly enjoyed it—wonderful world-building, exciting twisting plot, and great characters. One minute it’s full of fun and wit, the next it’s dark and hard-hitting. And the descriptions were masterful—not for the images his words painted, but how he managed to conjure these mental pictures in different ways.
I’ll take a couple of examples, to show what I mean.
Early on in the book, we’re introduced to the Thiefmaker, a Fagin-like character who takes in unwanted children and moulds them, as his name suggests, into his army of thieves. There’s no clear physical description, but there is a line that says he is ‘a miserable curiosity—a pickpocket with nine broken fingers.’
Broken fingers, on a pickpocket? It implies that the man himself is broken, no longer able to personally ply his trade. And that’s the only reference to nine fingers, until he has his wards together and is giving them a speech. The sequence starts with these lines:
The Thiefmaker held up three crooked fingers, as though on cue.
“Business,” he cried. “Three items of business.”
He progresses through his first three points, and it is left to the reader’s imagination to see him counting these off on those twisted digits. Then, once he’s gone through his trio of points, he sums up like this:
‘The rules are simple! You’ll learn them all in good time. For now, let’s keep it like this. Anyone who eats, works. Anyone who works, eats. Which brings us to work, my fourth—Oh, dear. Children, children. Do an absent-minded old man the favour of imagining that he held up four fingers. This is my fourth important point.”
There’s no description of action, but it’s easy to picture his hand twitching, then his eyes turning to the place where the digit used to be. If we missed the mention of nine fingers before, or wondered if the tenth was, in fact, unbroken, we now know for certain that it is missing.
Lynch painted this image without breaking dialogue. He implies action so well that we can’t fail to ‘see’ what’s happening.
In another example. Lynch managed to paint a whole scene while physically describing next to nothing:
The Broken Tower is a landmark of Camorr, jutting ninety feet skyward at the very northern tip of the Snare, that low and crowded district where sailors from a hundred ports of call are passed from bar to alehouse to gaming den and back again on a nightly basis. They are shaken through a sieve of tavern keepers, whores, muggers, dicers, cobble-cogs and other low tricksters until their pockets are as empty as their heads are heavy, and they can be dumped on ship to nurse their new hangovers and diseases. They come in like the tide and go out like the tide, leaving nothing but a residue of copper and silver (and occasionally blood) to mark their passing.
Lynch starts with the kind of description that wouldn’t be out of place in a guidebook — ‘jutting ninety feet skyward at the very northern tip’. He then tells us the district is ‘low and crowded’. A lesser writer would proceed to describe this place. But Lynch takes a different approach.
He follows sailors.
He doesn’t give us any description of the buildings, or the streets, or the docks. There’s nothing about the flapping of sails, the slapping of water, the cries of sea-birds, the shouting and swearing mingling with the clangs and crashes of the area. There’s nothing about the different aromas—the sea, alcohol, food, sweat, exotic spices in cargo. Instead, Lynch focuses on the sailors—not what they look like, but what happens to them. Yet still, as we read, we can picture the dark taverns, the whores flashing their thighs to tempt new customers. We can imagine the grimy streets, rubbish and vomit at the edges.
And more than that, we can feel the place. Through focusing on those sailors, Lynch brings the place alive, gives us not a physical description but an emotional one. Even though every reader will see a different image from this passage, every reader can picture the scene, knows exactly what the dockland area is like. And, because this ‘description’ deals with emotions and actions rather than plain images, the reader is far more engaged. As the story’s protagonists enter the area, we’re already anticipating trouble for them. The setting has become alive, another character the (anti) heroes of the story must encounter and overcome.
There are loads more lessons to learn from this book, but I’ll leave it at these two examples (for now). They serve as reminders that descriptions in fiction are far more than a way of showing what is physically there. A good description will imply more than it tells. It will not only give a mental image, but will also evoke an emotional response.