A Delicate Equipoise

Authors bring different innate strengths to their writing. Some are clever in plotting ingenious twists. Some have a knack for knowing the right gossipy detail about a character. Still others have a knack for painting word pictures. The disparity of talents can lead to an uneven narrative if the writer isn’t careful to maintain a balance. 

For this post I will set aside plot and character in favor of focusing on descriptions. Narrowing further, I’ll leave out descriptions that show a flair for metaphor, describing an object by using an unexpected parallel. I’ll concentrate instead on very detailed descriptions, as seen almost with a magnifying glass.

This style of descriptive work hails from the late nineteenth century, before film came into vogue. Readers of dense books like those of Thomas Hardy marvel even today at the remarkable ability to “see” the fictional world being portrayed. These books are accompanied by a narrative approach that applies such details to a novel’s other aspects, particularly the feelings of the characters and the moral milieu in which the outsider was punished.

Such harmony is difficult to achieve these days, when prose style in general has been largely stripped of such flourishes.  Nobody speaks anymore with cultured mannerisms, for one example. The advances of science have shorn us largely of any cosmos-based morality, making a character’s thoughts more utilitarian as well. So, what happens to a modern writer who happens to be terrific at painting exquisite word pictures?

If they are placed within a novel in which the other narrative elements are more plain, descriptions that hone in on pinpoint details can seem florid. The writer’s strength is undone because the different aspects of the novel are unbalanced. Any reader coming upon a half page of intricate sentences may be repelled by their very density when in fact the opposite is intended.  

A good solution is for the writer to raise their game in other elements as well. If the protagonist has equally knotty thoughts about life’s eternal questions, then the entire enterprise is raised to the level of literature. Portraying such a rich inner life is, however, the most difficult achievement for a novelist. A description can be gained by close observation. The complexity of the tribulations we all face is less easily captured. But if you wish to scale the heights of the one peak, you should try to match it with the other.

Exercise: One way to skirt the imbalance is by breaking up descriptions into smaller parcels. A paragraph with three painstaking sentences can be enjoyed as a sideline while on the way to the next plot development or inner monologue. A single sentence thrown in juxtaposition to strong action can be a refreshing break away from its intensity. You just insert less rich cake at a time.

“You can't have words sticking out too much, like promontories. They disturb the density. You have to flatten them, or raise the surrounding terrain.” —Ben Okri

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.