Storytelling: Using Pieces in Combination

July 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

There’s a scene in Searching for Bobby Fischer, about chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, where a street hustler watches Josh playing briefly and exults to Josh’s mother (as she’s dragging him away) that “Your boy used pieces in combination to attack”.

It’s a nice little nugget on sophistication and craft in any creative form. Anyone can throw themselves at a winning attempt in sports or art or whatever, but on a different plane there’s building something (in this case, a coordinated offense) to fulfill a creative end.

In writing, for example, there’s a huge difference between simply writing about your subject with one single-minded thread (attacking directly) and using many of the different elements available to you to realize your subject (using pieces in combination).

Example: a direct attack, from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.

There’s one line of thought and description in this passage: the Earth is a barren place. Everything here is simply a restatement of that barrenness — pilgrims falling over and dying, the “shrouded” earth, tracklessness, namelessness, “the ancient dark beyond”. “Variations on a theme” would be too generous. McCarthy’s just re-emphasizing the same notion with homogenous bits of portent. If you’ve read it, you know that the whole of The Road uses one line of description. It’s a crude attack.

Here’s a multi-pronged attack, from John Updike’s short story “A&P” (which I’ve quoted on this blog before):

The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece. She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs.

I see two threads here: 1) the crudeness of the narrator’s ogling (“chunky kid”, “good tan”, “soft-looking can”) and 2) the little bit of delicacy that shows his eyes aren’t going to the typical places, when his eye notes the paleness at the top of her thighs, “where the sun never seems to hit”. When Updike invokes the shadow of the sun, it’s a great playful accent.

These two threads interplay — the narrator’s ogling is of a piece with his observing, and this combination, this balance, perfectly establishes the particular kind of richness in the narrative voice and the point of view, or state of mind, of the piece.

Counting the threads in a bit of a description is, in my experience, a nice little rule of thumb for knowing whether a story’s got any tricks up its sleeve and is worth reading past the beginning. It almost literally makes the difference between one-dimensional and multi-dimensional writing.

Bad Similes: Empty As An Only Child’s Playroom

April 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

I feel like there’s a certain trend toward vagueness in contemporary fiction that’s demonstrated by the use of simile. One thing is compared literal-mindedly to another thing to bring some loft or levity to the sentence, but the simile doesn’t add much except abstract fanciness. Similes used this way are really metaphors for the author’s furrowed brow.

I don’t have a rigorous data set on this, so I’ll give a few examples and you can decide for yourself whether their manner is familiar to you. These are all from books in the last ten or twenty years or so. (I don’t like picking on authors, but you have to talk about real writing to be really instructive.)

Here’s one:

Mildew permeated the wall-to-wall carpeting…Stepping into a corridor was like opening a refrigerator kept shut for too long.

The smell of mildew leads to the refrigerator comparison. Yes, the smells would be comparable, wouldn’t they? The same in fact. The exact same. So what does the refrigerator comparison add? It adds words to the word count, and it adds indirection to the style, but how does it illuminate the smell or its effect on the story? I bet the corridor isn’t even cold like a refrigerator.

Here’s another:

He extended his right hand toward the glass. Another hand, the mirror-image of his own, reached out to meet it, as if to pull him through the ripple of fingerprints into a looking-glass world.

Here the simile is in the “as if…” form. What’s the point of conjuring a looking-glass world in this gesture? Maybe this is an introduction to a deep theme of the book about reflective worlds and/or alter egos and the subtle impression that a bizarro world lurks beside this one. But that’s a long shot. In the context of this passage, the looming looking-glass world doesn’t fit, and seems like an overreach, a highfalutin attempt at mood.

Also, a hand simply reaching toward a glass pane isn’t in a pulling position! The fingertips would be spread to rest, not to clutch. Fingers ready to pull might be spread, but tensed as well. The comparison image does not compute.

Here’s a third, from a more popular book, because everybody does it, popular or not:

The bathroom is tiny. I feel like Alice in Wonderland, grown huge and having to stick my arm out the window just so I can turn around.

The room is small, the narrator feels huge, so she compares herself to Alice in Wonderland. The stuff about sticking her arm through the window doesn’t meaningfully pertain to her actual physical situation (is there even a window in the bathroom?), so it’s an empty extension of the description. To go out on a limb, there’s a whiff of name-dropping, too, in going so far as calling out Alice in Wonderland for the simple feeling of being cramped.

I said I suspect this is a contemporary trend because the abuse of simile is of a piece with the general pseudoliterary, pseudopoetic style of MFA writing, where nice, pretty phrases aromatize a bit of storytelling like so much prose Febreze. (Did you know it’s not “Febreeze” like “breeze”??)

This style of writing is, in a word, decadent. It’s a prettified insubstantial groping for artistry. We are better than this! All you have to do when faced with a rhetorical device, say a simile, is to ask yourself what the artifice involves, and what it achieves. In these cases, the artifice achieves nothing. If you just push your imagination a little further than it’s used to, if you just don’t take an author’s exertions at face value but strive to understand how they work, then the differences between good and bad writing, and more importantly the real joys of the former, reveal themselves.

Here’s a good example, from a little older but still contemporary piece:

With the straps [of her bathing suit] pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty.

The simile, a “dented sheet of metal”, is deliberately crude in accordance with the narrator’s voice. But a dented sheet of metal is an elegant way of capturing an almost-plane whose angles and crooks catch the light differently at different places and reveal details here and there. The dented sheet of metal, surprisingly, is the basis of the narrator’s ogling and attentiveness at the same time. Very nice!

There may be a lesson here that, generally, a simile says more about its imaginer than about the object of its comparison, so maybe similes are more apt for first-person descriptions. But let’s not go making rules, because rules are anathema to creativity.

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