Thursday, April 3, 2008

Toward More Picturesque Speech

When I teach my kids creative writing there come various lessons on using adjectives, adverbs and other literary tools such as metaphor and personification. I remember my own writing lessons in which I learned about such devices and how they can add color and interest to one's writing.

I also remember my inevitable tendency to overdo the literary tools I was supposed to be making use of. Like Charles Schulz's Snoopy in It was a Dark and Stormy Night. I would creatively and interestingly string together colorful, picturesque, meaningful modifiers so the the reader would glide on the lilt of my words like the King listening to Scheherezade's spellbinding, suspenseful tales. And so it goes.

I've recently read several books that got me thinking about a writer's use of literary tools. When are they well-done and when are they overdone. What is it that makes Jan Karon's images rich while those of Nora Roberts seem silly? Why can Janet Evanovich so successfully use simile to transport her readers and Roberto Saviano makes no sense at all with his metaphors?

Here are some samples.

From Out to Canaan by Jan Karon. The context is a beautiful spring morning in Father Tim's yard.
The morning mist rose from the warm ground and trailed across the garden like a vapor from the moors. Under the transparent wash of gray lay the vibrant emerald of the new-mown grass, and the unfurled leaves of the hosta. Over there in the bed of exuberant astilbe, crept the new tendrils of the strawberry plants whose blossoms glowed in the mist like pink fires.
And now from Nora Roberts, Affaire Royale. The main female character, Brie is looking out across the Mediterranean.
The sea wall was single-minded blue. If it had had its way, it would have consumed the land. The wall prevented that, but didn't tame it. Farther out she could see the ships, big freighters that were on their way to or from the port, sleek sailing boats with their canvas taut.
Now maybe just getting excerpts like this is not enough to make my point, but I will try. I noticed first that in the scenery descriptions the choice of words in the Roberts book are much more violent sounding. A visual image that portrays a feeling a angst. That is consistent throughout the book. Perhaps that is an intentional part of the art of writing a romance? Maybe a romance author tries to subconsciously portray the struggle against human entanglements within other elements of the story line. A bit now and then is ok, but eventually the repetition starts to comes across as somewhat hoaky.

I also noticed that the development of a character who might be seeing something the author describes changes how the reader perceives a certain visual image. For instance, the Karon excerpt when taken alone may actually seem the most contrived of the two I highlighted. But in the context of Father Tim's personality it is just right. Hmm. Now it sounds as though I am saying that his character in general is contrived and overdone. And that is not really the case either.

Another excerpt from Out to Canaan. This one occurs shortly after the first, on the same morning. Father Tim is remembering an experience involving a blackberry he picked the previous summer.
He remembered it distinctly, remembered looking at it's unusual elongated from, and putting it in his mouth. The blackberry burst with flavor that transported him instantly to his childhood, to his age of innocence and bare feet and chiggers and freedom.
I love how Karon is able to touch the reader's own memories with the concrete detail of he blackberry and the list of nearly universal childhood summer features of innocence, bare feet, chiggers and freedom. And also she is describing the universal experience of having some specific sense, a smell or sound, or in this case a taste bring back such a rush of memory. Good detail in writing has to involve the reader somehow.

And again, from Affaire Royale. This time the main male character, Reeve, an independent security consultant, analyzing why he had decided to help.
He'd decided to help her because she needed help, but nothing was ever that simple. The puzzle of her kidnapping nagged at him, prodded, taunted. On the surface it seemed as though her father was leaving the investigation to the police and going about his business. Reeve rarely believed what was on the surface. If Armand was playing a chess game with him as a queen 's knight he'd play along, and make some moves of his own. It hadn't taken Reeve long to discover that royalty was insular, private and closemouthed. So much better the challenge. He wanted to put the pieces of the kidnapping together, but to do so, he had to put the pieces of Gabriella together first.
He just sounds like a cowboy, a renegade. And although he is supposed to be a very honorable man, there is this tough guy, take control sort of thing a reader has to deal with. Again, perhaps a trademark of the romance genre?

Now on to metaphor. I tried to read Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano. This book sounded so interesting, that I was really looking forward to reading it and learning a few things. It is a non-fiction book sharing the author's experiences and insights from when he infiltrated the Napolitano organized crime syndicate.

But talk about overdoing it. This book is so full of poetic prose that the reader eventually despairs of finding any fact hidden within the picturesque language. I am sure it is there. I started it twice to see if that helped. I put it down for a few weeks and tried again. Both times I did find some interesting information. But both times I also got impatient with the fluff. Here is an example.
The port is detached from the city. An infected appendix, never quite degenerating into peritonitis, always there in the abdomen of the coastline. A desert hemmed in by water and earth, but which seems to belong to neither land nor sea. A grounded amphibian, a marine metamorphosis. A new formation created from the dirt, garbage and odds and ends that the tide has carried ashore over the years...
I put the ellipsis in because I got tired just typing it in. That is about 1/4 of the paragraph. All told the actual info from the paragraph could have been said in 10-15 words. But one has to muddle through all the pictures to find the meat.

I guess I don't have the time for it in my life. If I want to read poetry, I'll read Longfellow or Sandburg.

And I also invite the readers of this blog to refresh their memories with one of my favorite Janet Evanovich quotes. I included it in a former blog post. This quote very successfully uses simile to put readers on a stretch of urban highway.

I know this has gotten long, but thanks for bearing with me. And really, please let me know what literary tools work for you. What makes one author's contrivances seem so natural while another author's attempts just get in the way of the story.

Or send me a favorite excerpt, either good or bad. And let me know why you like or dislike it.

I'll close with this. Now, forgive me if this is wrong. It is just an approximation from a book Joe and I started during the months Matt, who is now 13, was colicky. One of us would walk baby and the other would read aloud. We were never totally engaged in this book, but were trying to stick with it. After this we kind of gave up on it. And so from The Silver Chalice, by Thomas B. Costain.
We were standing at the doorway to the threshold of the land of enchantment.
And since I am standing at the doorway to the threshold of that land of somnia I am going to be a rebel and NOT proofread this. Yikes. Some of you may recall the Christmas letter I did for the congregations here?

1 comment:

theMom said...

I don't know if you would find it enjoyable or not, but Debora Tannen's "Talking Voices: Repetition, Dialogue and Imagery in Conversational Discourse" touches on many aspects of what you're describing.

Also, I think there are a couple of relevant chapters in William Zinsser's "On Writing Well."

I've got them both in my library if you were willing to brave the turbid chaos of the office.

Anyway, what you're writing about seems very similar to what Tannen calls "involvement strategies." She has catalogued a pretty good variety of examples.