The lesson I learned from P.G. Wodehouse is that a vivid description, especially a humorous one, not only makes the subject come alive but also makes it memorable.
Mr. Wodehouse was a master at creating with imagery that crystallizes a character or a situation. Here are some of my favorites:
He “looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say ‘When!’”
“Jeeves and the Impending Doom”
To describe someone completely taken by surprise, he wrote “Aunt Agatha, whose demeanour was now rather like that of one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down-express in the small of the back.”
“Aunt Agatha Takes the Count”
Describing an angry school teacher who thinks a guest is about to tell her students an inappropriate story, he writes that the teacher cut off her guest, “rising like an iceberg.”
“Bertie Changes His Mind”
“As a rule, you see, I’m not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps …”
The Inimitable Jeeves
“The Duke of Dunstable had one-way pockets. He would walk ten miles in the snow to chisel a starving orphan out of tuppence.”
“In moments of excitement she had that extraordinary habit of squeaking like a basketful of puppies”
“He resembled a frog that had been looking on the dark side since it was a slip of tadpole/”
compiled in Plum Sauce by Richard Usborne
I especially like the one comparing feuding aunts to mastodons. All these images are funny and memorable, and half the fun of reading Wodehouse is finding nuggets like these.
In My Own Writing
My novel is crime fiction and not humorous, but I gave my main character a sense of humor, so some of his descriptions can be funny. Because he lives in the West Virginia mountains and loves nature, he describes people in terms of animals, “like a toad ready to pop” or someone is “grinning like a grizzly.”
Even when humor isn’t appropriate for a scene or story, I still try to follow Mr. Wodehouse’s style, summing up a person in a brief but vivid way, what my writer friend Michelle L. Lavigne calls “a handle”.
In a short story I wrote recently, I needed a way for my teenage main character to describe two people he had seen for the first time. He call one man in his twenties “Mr. Smooth” because of his slicked hair, clean-shaven, pretty face, and fashionable clothes. He calls a well-dressed woman “Fashion Model”.
What are your favorite kinds of imagery? How do you use them in your writing?