Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Rule 7 for New Writers

Image and Import

If I can say anything important to writers who are still learning the craft of fiction, it's this: imagery does not occur on the writer's page; it occurs in the reader's mind.
-- Steven King


So the other day I came across a Steven King article on description, with the above quote, which rather echoes my own contention that narrative is not a static object but a dynamic effect. Or as I'd put it, that it's about conjuring rather than communication: the goal in narrative is not for the words on the page to communicate the image that's in your mind, but rather for them to conjure it in the reader's mind.

Communication and the fucking content metaphor -- as if your job is simply to inform the reader of what they are to imagine. Into a block of description, sure, you could simply spew out the pseudo-facts for the reader, so they can lift the book and pour them over their head, dumping the requisite details on themselves, item by item, in any order; this is no guarantee it will get inside their skull, no guarantee they will imagine it. If you want them to actually picture your image -- a setting, say -- you need to understand (intuitively if not consciously) that with each word you are not vomiting thought into an inky vessel for the reader to decant. No, you are setting a charge that will blow up on reading. You are using the words as tools to act indirectly upon the reader's imagination.

King points to where an attempt to do so may fail, in the inadequacy of a description that communicates without conjuring:

An example: A beginning writer may put down, "It was a spooky old house," and let it go at that, knowing it doesn't convey any real punch or immediacy, but not knowing what to do about it. The writer has a sense that "It was a spooky old house" is somehow wrong, but he or she doesn't quite... know why. It's like that maddening itch in the middle of your back that you just can't scratch. Well, I'll tell you what's wrong with "It was a spooky old house." It isn't an image; it's an idea.

To be clear: it's not the lack of detail that's the problem here, but rather the failure of the words to act upon the reader's imagination with any verve. As a notional communication ("an idea"), it lacks impact ("punch or immediacy.") It fails to really conjure any house at all, let alone a spooky old one. To understand why "spooky old house" fails to invoke a visual import though is to understand that in truth we could strip away the few details there are in that phrase, slice off the adjectives, and set ourselves up a process of conjuring in which it would have twice the impact, if not more, all on its lonesome ownsome.

How so? In narrative, every word, every phrase, every clause is an operation in and upon the reader's imagination, a word like "house" invoking an import, triggering a notion in their noggin. But each operation is always already taking the reader's imagination as its most crucial variable, the precise flavour of the import invoked dependent on the sum of all notions currently in play. This bears repeating: the full meaning of the word at the moment of use is profoundly reliant upon the state of the reader's imagination as set by the narrative so far. I recall Delany somewhere saying that there are no synonyms, that no two words have the exact same meaning. This does not go far enough. Even the one word does not have the same meaning twice.

Like the word, "house," say.

*

A House and a House

From the first word on, narrative is working on an imagination that is not empty, and the impact of the word fired into that shifting substrate is always already the reaction of that substrate to the impact. Not an essential meaning sealed into the inky vessel, as decreed in the dictionary, forever and ever, so mote it be. No, the reaction being a product of the narrative heretofore -- because the reader's imagination is still reacting to what it has read to date -- the import of "the house" will be quite different if it comes after "Through the gates and up the long gravel driveway..." or "About halfway along a Victorian terrace..." Even a single word -- "suburban" or "beachfront" -- may prime the reader this way or that, such that the word "house" has one action on the reader's imagination here, another action on it there.

Here is one "house":

I opened the car door to the smell of salt in the air, the sound of surf and gulls. Californian sunlight on the white gravel of the driveway. With its beachfront location, the house...

Here is another:

As his mum took the usual five minutes trying to get the car parked straight -- squeezing into the parking bay between a builder's van and a hatchback with one of those Baby on Board stickers in the window -- David sulked in the passenger seat, glowering out the windscreen at the suburban bollocks of it all. The house...

With the first example, there's not enough to prime you so that the house automatically has the same white clean-lined modernity for you that it has for me, but I'm certainly sending you in the direction of a more expensive property with the phrase "beachfront location," with smells and sounds of nature that, in the absence of the noxious and the noisy, should connote seclusion. To mention California, paint the sunlight on white gravel, is to further set the context and tone, and so set the action of the word "house."

With the second, there's not enough to ensure you imagine the pebble-dashed semi-detached on a UK housing estate, but the word "suburban" should have sent you that way. Note though that the import of "suburban" is itself dependent on the British detailing of the windscreen (rather than windshield,) the parking bay, the builder's van and hatchback, "his mum" (the only reason it's not a less sexist "women are bad drivers" stereotype "dad.") American detailing would conjure an entirely different "suburban" and so an entirely different "house" -- a detached house with its own driveway perhaps.

In both examples, the point is, the conjuring of the house begins before it's even mentioned. In my Rule #7 for New Writers, I say that action makes setting. I might almost say it does so in the sense that setting is manufactured in the reader's imagination by the action of the words upon the reader's imagination. That as soon as the words begin ("his mum" not "his mom") that action which conjures setting has begun. That's not actually what I mean by that rule though. I say all this only to highlight the principle, establish as underpinning this notion of narrative as cumulative conjuring.

But wait, I hear you say, don't the words "spooky" and "old" do much the same as "beachfront" and "suburban"? Well, yes, they do actually prime the reader's imagination such that "house" invokes a certain visual import, but they're generic and as such ineffective. That import is a cliché long past parody; the "house" that comes after "spooky old" is doomed by the operation of those adjectives to be no more than a trope, a trite cursory cartoon of an image, a silhouette in black cardboard of a haunted house from Scooby Doo or The Addams Family, decor for a children's Halloween party. The addition of the adjectives, the addition of the detail, actually makes that house less vivid than either of the other two which haven't been described in the slightest, not yet. Where the house is archetypal, an evermade symbol of the self (as Danielewski's House of Leaves so effectively explores,) the word in and of itself comes charged with a mystery and horror that "spooky" can only banalise.



*

Setting and Stasis


But there's another problem I want to pick out in that example of King's, another operation that's being performed in the narrative before we reach the word "house" and that contributes in no small part to the failure of the conjuring. The problem starts even before the adjectives, in the first three words: "It was a..."

Stasis is the problem here, the fact that "It was a..." slams the brakes on narrative, bringing action to a grinding halt to give us instead the inherently inert (and therefore deadening, therefore depositional) communication (not conjuring, not with that vague placemark "it,") of state. A description of state is static. This should be so blindingly self-evident it doesn't need to be said. But for many writers it seems it does; the moment any object comes into play, a halt is called to play itself in order to describe that object. Characters are introduced with profiles cribbed straight from notes as workaday as a police all-points bulletin. Objects are detailed flatly feature by feature as in some mail-order catalogue. And setting, of course... well, it's merely the theatre of action, the fixed context for stuff happening, so how could it not be described in static terms?

This is where we do start to get into the idea that action in the narrative sense -- stuff actually happening in the narrative -- can be crucial in the construction of setting. In previous entries, I talked about how character makes action, how the Actuality-Exposition structure can be corrosive of this, how descriptive detail that isn't woven properly into action can undermine it as mere activity and explication. In the paid critiques I do, writers often need to be told that they could be revealing the qualities of this or that object in passing, as the viewpoint character interacts with it. That rather than itemising what X is wearing, they might have him shove his hands in the pockets of his Y, brush lint off his Z, and so on. When it comes to setting, even to look at is to interact with, and as long as the description is taking place via such interactions, the narrative is not pausing. Which is, yanno, less boring.

More: if the description is taking place via the character's interaction, if the setting is being conjured via the character's experience of setting, it is likely to be far more vivid because of that. The chain formed by Rules 5 to 7 -- Voice Makes Character Makes Action Makes Setting -- is actually an argument that the character's voice can be a mode of narration the writer slips into, the character almost an alter ego, as some autonomous personality construct hosted in the unconscious which then surfaces in the text far richer than if it were consciously fabricated; that such a character's synthetic agency generates valid action automatically and organically; that everything they interact with, setting included, will necessarily be more fully conjured because it is, in fact, secretly part of that construct, part of the character: their experience. With a first person or third person limited PoV, this is to say, we need to invert our understanding of which contains the other. In these, the setting is not the frame that the character acts within, but rather the character is the frame for the setting; the only setting that exists in the narrative is the little ever-shifting model of the world the character is carrying around inside their head.

As noted in those entries though, there is a caveat: of course there is the descriptive passage in its own right, where nothing is meant to be happening. Whether it's an omniscient narrator setting up the scene or simply a viewpoint character paused to fully take in a sight worthy of a little lyricism, taking it into their nous as an object requiring assimilation in terms of what it is, not what it is doing or what is being done to it, there are times when you simply can't carry out all the description as an inline function. Not all narratives are headlong action/adventure, and even in such narratives the odd still point may be exactly what is called for in the conjuring. So we might want, might need, a conjuring of a house as tableau.

And yet, the reason I'm getting my teeth into King's "It was a spooky old house," example in the first place is that the counter-example he provides in that article caught my eye as a passage that surely fits that mold, but which is actually a rather neat demonstration, I think, of how action still makes setting even in such cases. How even in a tableau, the stasis of "It was a..." is not the aim of the game in conjuring setting.

 *

The Action of the Inanimate

Here's King again then, giving an example from Salem's Lot of how one might actually conjure that sort of a "house."

The house itself looked toward town. It was huge and rambling and sagging, its windows haphazardly boarded shut, giving it that sinister look of all old houses that have been empty for a long time. The paint had been weathered away, giving the house a uniform gray look. Windstorms had ripped many of the shingles off, and a heavy snowfall had punched in the west corner of the main roof, giving it a thumped, hunched look. A tattered no trespassing sign was nailed to the right-hand newel post.

So far, so static, right? Wrong. You think he's just painting an inert picture of the house, encapsulating its appearance as in a good, solidly-detailed photograph? No, he's not. There's no character looking up at it, not even a crow taking off from that collapsing roof or landing on that newel post, but even in the absence of beings to interact with it, there's actually a fair bit of action sneakily woven through that setting.

Here's a rewrite diminishing that action in order to demonstrate:

The house itself was facing toward town. It was huge and labyrinthine and saggy, with boards higgledy-piggledy on its windows, so it had that sinister look of all old houses that have been empty for a long time. With its worn paint, the house had a uniform gray look. Many of the shingles were missing, and the west corner of the main roof was completely caved-in, so it had a thumped, hunched look. On the right-hand newel post, there was a tattered no trespassing sign.

The past continuous "was facing" instead of the simple past of "looked" turns action into ongoing action and thereby state. Switching the past continuous verbs "rambling" and "sagging" for the adjectives "labyrinthine" and "saggy" removes even the echo of action. The windows have no longer had an action perpetrated on them; the boards are just there. Where the original traces that action's impact, sets it as a follow-on action -- "giving it that sinister look" -- now the narrative explains that being in the state described therefore it has this other quality too. And so it goes, the action upon the paint, the action of the windstorms, the action of the snowfall all stripped from the passage.

Which should highlight just how much action there was actually going on there. But just to drive the point home, let me draw out the action of the inanimate by bolding the verbs that tell of action performed by or upon the house, actions that conjure its appearance as a product of events, that conjure the setting as a result of its own narrative in fact, the detailing of the image becoming a detailing of backstory.

The house itself looked toward town. It was huge and rambling and sagging, its windows haphazardly boarded shut, giving it that sinister look of all old houses that have been empty for a long time. The paint had been weathered away, giving the house a uniform gray look. Windstorms had ripped many of the shingles off, and a heavy snowfall had punched in the west corner of the main roof, giving it a thumped, hunched look. A tattered no trespassing sign was nailed to the right-hand newel post.

Is it proper to say that any of this is action though, in my stricter definition of action versus activity? If action is activity rendered significant, activity happening to or because of an agency, how can any of the stuff going on here qualify? Well, it might well be a cheat, but I made my stricter definition, so I can stretch the boundaries if I want: I say that's action because sneakily, surreptitiously, whether intentionally or not, King is kinda sorta casting the house as an agency.

Note the distinction in the first sentence between his version and mine. In his, the house "looked." Where it could be simply oriented in a certain direction, with its facade aligned thattaway -- "facing"  -- it's performing the action of a sentient agency. It's gazing, watching. So, this is figurative -- so what? All narrative is figurative. Remember what I've said above: narrative is not communication but conjuring; it's the invoking of import with the words. Here the words conjure windows as eyes, imbue the inanimate with awareness, with intent. The echo of "self" in "itself" might even come into play here. And I might add that such a strategy of projecting agency into setting is hardly unfamiliar in horror or fantasy, that both idioms indeed often concretise that conceit, literalise the metaphor.

Whatever. What matters is that my rewrite, you should agree, is patently worse, less vivid, and not just because it's pairing "labyrinthine" and "saggy" or using the risibly off-tone "higgledy-piggledy." If King just about manages to get away with the repetition of "giving... look," (it's... debatable,) my variant manages to lose one of the three inadvertently and still, I reckon, sound more trudgingly depositional.

*

Action Makes Setting

Just to wrap things up by bringing the whole post full circle, while I'm butchering King's passage to demonstrate this subtler application of Rule #7, I thought I'd finish off with another rewrite. Something to show that, as King says, the image occurs in the reader's mind; that, as I say, it's about conjuring, not communication. That you can't simply spew out the pseudo-facts for the reader into a block of description, can't just expect them to lift the book and pour them over their head. That you can't just dump the requisite details on them, item by item, in any order. Here's King's passage with not just the action of the inanimate ripped out, but with any sense of words as action destroyed:

On the right-hand newel post of the house, there was a tattered no trespassing sign. The house itself was facing toward town. Many of the shingles of the main roof were missing, and the west corner was completely caved-in, so the house a had thumped, hunched look. With its worn paint, it had a uniform gray look. It was huge and labyrinthine and saggy, with boards on its windows, so it had it that sinister look of all old houses that have been empty for a long time.

This, you should be crying with every fibre of your writerly soul, is not the conjuring of a setting.

This is just shite.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love that you provide text and then deconstruct it to clearly show exactly how such a solid example of conjuring a setting was done. And also how to make it pish to reinforce the point.

Have said this before, but when researching how to improve my writing it was all well and good to see plethora of general tips out there, but what I really wanted and needed were specifics like in this post, and in your other Writing 101pieces.

-Cameron

2:35 pm  
Blogger anna tambour said...

I was just telling a writer the other day to read and study your writing, to get himself a Vellum and Ink and really READ them, looking at both the way you relate something and the way you punctuate. But then Alistair Rennie raved to me about your lessons. (I admit that I rarely go anywhere on the web these days, but should really be stopping in here at least once a week for my constitutional.)
I've turned to this lesson 7 first because I was also trying to guide someone else about his thicket of similes that a reader has to wend through, without a cutlass, goat or panga. Your lesson is priceless, and so clear. I particularly love this, and totally agree: "you need to understand (intuitively if not consciously) that with each word you are not vomiting thought into an inky vessel for the reader to decant. No, you are setting a charge that will blow up on reading." Set those incendiaries!

Also, this makes my mentoring so much easier. "Go read Duncan's fiction, then Duncan's lessons and essays. And then rewrite. And only after that, show me what you've done," I'll say, and pinch a cloud to suck while I lounge back and do buggerall. Toil on, Master D!

5:30 am  

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