You Know What I Mean?
By Charles Ott
I think we spend too much time worrying about describing things so that a reader will see them clearly. The plain fact is that no reader is ever going to see what you saw in your mind when you wrote that lyrical scene. The reader is going to see what’s in his mind – and that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
My favorite description of a facial expression is from Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Someone has just annoyed Wyoming Knott and she makes a face “like a little girl saving up more spit.” Now, I’ve met a lot of little girls in my family (and, I suppose, have annoyed all of them at one time or another) and I’ve never seen a little girl actually save up more spit. I’d guess you haven’t either. And yet, we both know exactly what that face would look like, don’t we?
It’s really quite magical: you can describe something that you’ve never seen, show it to a reader who’s never seen it either, and yet somehow those words can create a vivid image.
Hemingway was famously terse in his descriptions, and I’ve heard it said that you can’t really understand his books unless you also saw the same photographs in Life magazine that he saw. The days when you could assume that almost every reader saw the same magazines (Life and Saturday Evening Post, for you young folks) are long gone, and yet we still read Hemingway. Our home-made, wrong impressions of his scenes work just as well for us as the more correct impressions of two generations back.
Here’s an example from the lyrics of Paul Simon’s song Late in the Evening:
First thing I remember, I was lying in my bed
Couldn’t’ve been no more than one or two
I remember there’s a radio, comin’ from the room next door
And my mother laughed the way some ladies do
If you look hard at these lyrics, you have to come to the conclusion that there’s no description going on there at all. Everybody has heard the radio, always playing different music, and all ladies have some kind of laugh. All of us have fragmentary, context-free memories from early childhood. With a rigorous reading, we’d have to conclude that there’s no information at all in these lyrics.
But you can just hear that radio and that odd laugh, can’t you? Of course you can, pieced together from your own experience, whatever that has been.
Science fiction faces this problem all the time, because it often requires the writer to describe something that nobody has ever seen. From Edmond Hamilton’s Battle for the Stars: “Cluster N-356-44 … was hellfire made manifest before them. It was a hive of swarming suns, pale-green and violet, white and yellow-gold and smoky red, blazing so fiercely that the eye was robbed of perspective and those stars seemed to crowd and rub and jostle each other … pouring forth the torrents of their life-energy to whirl in cosmic belts and maelstroms of radiation.” Okay, I have a taste for purple prose – so sue me. You still got the picture, didn’t you?
Bottom line: describe your scene so you can picture it, and trust me, they’ll get it.
Check out Charles’ novel, The Floor of the World, available from Amazon.