Last week, Lady Glamis (who I've decided is also incredibly nice, and whose books I'd like to read) posted a valuable lesson on Purple Prose. When we write, we should avoid adding flowery details that don't serve any function other than giving details. One way to fix the problem of purple prose is to cut the extraneous information during revision. But, there are great examples when details, LOTS of them, don't end up sounding purple. This happens when the author makes use of the details not only to create a scene, but also to help reveal character, culture, status, and other aspects of the story. In this post, I'm looking at a classic example to show how the best details serve multiple functions. Keep in mind that I usually get criticized for not having enough details, so the fact that this works for me means that there is something in the description that is holding my attention. This is a passage from one of my favorite books -- sorry, but I'm Old School-- Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy:
Although her dress, her coiffure, and all the preparations for the ball had cost Kitty great trouble and consideration, at this moment she walked into the ballroom in her elaborate tulle dress over a pink slip as easily and simply as though all the rosettes and lace, all the minute details of her attire had not cost her or her family a moment's attention, as though she had been born in that tulle dress and lace, with her hair done up high on her head, and a rose and two leaves on top of it…
It was one of Kitty's best days. Her dress was not uncomfortable anywhere; her lace berthe did not droop anywhere; her rosettes were not crushed nor torn off; her pink slippers with high, hollowed-out heels did not pinch, but gladdened her feet; and the thick rolls of fair chignon kept up on her head as if they were her own hair. All the three buttons buttoned up without tearing on the long glove that covered her hand without concealing its lines. The black velvet of her locket nestled with special softness round her neck. That velvet was delicious; at home, looking at her neck in the looking-glass, Kitty had felt that that velvet was speaking. About all the rest there might be a doubt, but the velvet was delicious. Kitty smiled here too, at the ball, when she glanced at it in the glass. Her bare shoulders and arms gave Kitty a sense of chill marble, a feeling she particularly liked. Her eyes sparkled, and her rosy lips could not keep from smiling from the consciousness of her own attractiveness.
What I find amazing about this section is that I get completely overloaded with details but the writing still works for me. We know basically everything there is to know about Kitty's outfit as she is entering a ball. But, we also know a lot more. We know that Kitty has put a lot of time into this very eleborate gown. We know that she has a certain charm -- she knows how to wear this gown. She knows how to carry herself. She's probably been to balls like this dozens of times before, always elaborately dressed and trying to look her best. But, this is not a typical day. Because, we know, though her glamour may have come at the cost of her comfort in previous balls, today, everything is perfect. Her rosettes are not crushed or torn. Her slippers do not pinch. Tonight is a charmed night, and Tolstoy is able to really give us a feeling for just how perfect this night is by describing everything from her feet up to her hair, not missing a thing, to ensure us that, indeed, everything is perfect in its totality. And, then he goes on to describe even more details, this time dipping into the realm of things that most people probably wouldn't even consider. The gloves do not conceal the lines of her hands. The velvet is speaking! Her bare arms not only look like marble, but like chill marble. This is a girl that really cares about her appearance and the impression that she is going to make. (My belt rarely matches my shoes, on the other hand.) This entrance to the ball is something very important to Kitty's life. And, through the descriptions, we get a sense of who Kitty is: a young woman, just breaking into the social world. Her mind is not distracted by thoughts of peace and war, money, death. No. All she cares about at this moment is making a grand entrance. And, in that, we understand who she is at this moment in her life, completely, before she is forced to grow up.
So, while details can be boring, they can also be used to great effect when they reveal more than what is obvious. Tomorrow, I'll break down a more contemporary passage that I like, in the hopes of showing even more ways that details can be made interesting.