The latest Costa Book of the Year blends history, horror and mystery with a twist of the supernatural. It’s the first children’s book to win the award for over a decade and, as its beautiful prose unraveled before me, I too came under the spell of The Lie Tree.
C.S. Lewis once said: “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” The Lie Tree, by that definition, is a great tale for it could be enjoyed by many ages and the protagonist, fourteen-year-old Faith, seems older than she is.
The Lie Tree opens as Faith’s family, tarnished by controversy, flee to an uninviting island but the story truly begins when her father dies under mysterious circumstances. Ever curious, she’s determined to untangle the truth. As Faith goes through his belongings, she comes across a strange tree which needs not light but lies to bear fruit that reveal hidden secrets. The bigger her lies, the greater the truths that ripen and the darker the story becomes.
Set in the Victorian era, when women’s brains were dismissed as smaller and thus to be excluded from education or debate, Faith’s determination to get involved in science, as her father once was, is a triumph.
What’s best about The Lie Tree, are the descriptions, particularly the way they bring the story, setting and characters alive. They’re so concise yet multidimensional. Inspired by this, here are six little lessons in how to make description an immersive experience…
Don’t let description be aimless. Be clear on what you want each snippet to achieve whether it’s to characterise, create mood, add to action or move the story on. Here, Faith’s curiosity comes alive with a culinary metaphor: “There was hunger in her, and girls were not supposed to be hungry. They were supposed to nibble sparingly when at table, and their minds were supposed to be satisfied with a slim diet too. A few stale lessons from tired governesses, dull walks, unthinking pastimes. But it was not enough. All knowledge – any knowledge – called to Faith, and there was a delicious, poisonous pleasure in stealing it unseen.”
Draw on six senses
Embracing all senses in your prose, though not necessarily all at once, helps the characters’ experiences become the readers’. A multi-sensory experience occurs right from the opening line of The Lie Tree where sound, vision, feeling and a sixth sense that something’s not quite right are fused together: “The boat moved with a nauseous, relentless rhythm, like someone chewing on a rotten tooth.”
Let your characters’ changing feelings be the lens through which readers experience your fictional world. Know the emotions you want to convey and make these the dominant responses you want to achieve. Here, a description of what Faith hears is shaped by her fear: “The wind rattled the shutters and bolted the door, and sometimes behind its moan she heard a distant, roaring boom, like a sound from an animal throat. She knew that it must be a trick of the wind, but her imagination painted some great black beast out on the headlands, baying amid the storm.”
Writers are often told ‘show don’t tell’ but too much showing can be exhausting for readers just as too much telling can be wearisome. Use the minimum you can to achieve what you want, be specific and ensure the space given to describing something represents its importance. In The Lie Tree, this description of a building with a minor role uses an unusual simile (for the context) to create a vivid picture in just a sentence: “It was an old farmhouse, slate roofed and built of jagged brown stone that looked like shattered caramel.”
Evoke the changes in things
Description can be particularly exciting when it conveys changes of state or time. Here, it’s used to tell us just how long Faith’s journey was and how exhausted she has become: “A long journey leaves one depleted, like a paintbrush that has been drawn across a broad stretch of canvas.”
Fresh is vivid
Clichés are not only a bore but dull meaning too. Using description that is too dry or literal all the time can have the same effect. Come up with fresh ways of describing things and be surprising. Don’t over do it though. Create space around special description to make it stand out. In The Lie Tree, the cliché “Rumours spread like wildfire” is avoided in favour of “Rumours are like dogs. Flee from them and they give chase” which plays on the panic many may feel when reputation is ruined by gossip.
If you want to make your descriptions shine, I recommend reading The Lie Tree to get a feel for how well it can be done then have a go at the six techniques I’ve discussed above. One way of doing this is to choose objects around your house or draw on your experiences to see how succinct, vivid and compelling you can make your descriptions of them. Next, imagine fictional objects or settings and describe these through your characters’ lenses. You’ll now be a little closer to making your fictional projects immersive experiences.