The Skill List Project: Word Choice and Wordspace

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, we began discussing descriptive passages, and I laid down what I think is the fundamental principle of writing description: A descriptive passage is the story of a character’s encounter with a person, place, or thing. In other words, description unfolds as a temporal sequence of a particular character’s perceptions and his/her resulting reactions.

Word Choice

In most modern writing, the character will be a viewpoint character who’s actually part in the scene. However, the principle still applies in stories told from a viewpoint outside the story (e.g. the famed third-person omniscient narrator). Even a disembodied anonymous narrator has a persona, revealed by what details are presented. You get a sense of the narrator by where (s)he “aims the camera” and what words the narrator chooses to use.

For example, a friend of mine recently remarked on what he called the “photorealist” mode of description in The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. My friend noted that the book never goes inside the heads of any of the characters—it only shows us the surface. The book might say, “Sam Spade curled his lip,” but it doesn’t explicitly tell us what Spade was feeling at that moment. All we get is the exterior.

This might give us the impression that getting an unbiased unfiltered account of everything that happens…but really, it just means that Hammett is good at hiding how he’s slanting the narrative. Let’s consider two descriptions on the very first page. First, here’s Sam Spade’s secretary, Effie Perine:

She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. Her eyes were brown and playful in a shiny boyish face.

Next, here’s the introduction of a new potential client, Miss Wonderly:

A voice said, “Thank you,” so softly that only the purest articulation made the words intelligible, and a young woman came through the doorway. She advanced slowly, with tentative steps, looking at Spade with cobalt-blue eyes that were both shy and probing.

She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.

What do we notice about the two descriptions? First the contrasts: Effie is lanky, sunburned, and playful with a boyish face. She’s too old to call a tomboy, but we get the image of an easy-going cheerful woman, possibly outdoorsy (that sunburn) and athletic. She’s called a girl. Miss Wonderly (whose first name isn’t given for quite some time) is called a young woman, is called timid, is shown behaving with great hesitancy, and is meticulously dressed and made up (as opposed to Effie’s dress of “thin woolen stuff”).

In modern terms, Effie is hearty and low-maintenance; you might meet her for a beer down at the local pub. Miss Wonderly seems fragile and high-maintenance; she might occasionally sip white wine, but she’s too careful of her appearance and her comportment to go any place raucous.

How do we know this? By the narrator’s choice of words (“playful” vs. “timid”, “girl” vs. “young woman”) and by the details he chooses to show us. “She advanced slowly, with tentative steps” doesn’t impassively report an action; the word “tentative” gives us an emotional hint of how Miss Wonderly is feeling (or at least the impression she’s making). The narrator isn’t a neutral camera—he (and it is a “he”, isn’t it?) uses “signaling” words that are loaded with resonance. The narrator isn’t a detached godlike observer, he’s a human male who’s reacting to the scene, filtering it through his personal biases.

With a real-world scene, it’s impossible to describe everything. In the description of Effie, we aren’t told (for example) her hair color, the pitch of her voice, what type of shoes she had on, whether she was wearing perfume, and many other things. The narrator picks a few details that he personally notices, and he skips everything else. We’re given more details about Miss Wonderly, but there’s still a lot left out (shoes, perfume, etc.). The narrator doesn’t notice or doesn’t care about that stuff…and the author (as opposed to the narrator) is picking and choosing details in order to evoke reactions in the reader.

I’ll remind you that the descriptions of Effie and Miss Wonderly are both on the very first page of the book. The description of Miss Wonderly follows close on the heels of Effie, and is therefore heightened by contrast. Hammett could have chosen to leave Effie out completely—she’s not relevant at this point in the plot—but she’s there to make Miss Wonderly look more like a weak woman in distress.

Wordspace

Let me point out something else important about the descriptions I’ve quoted. Effie gets two sentences; Miss Wonderly gets two paragraphs. That’s an example of what I call wordspace. Here’s my rule of thumb: The more important something is, the more words it should be given so that it registers in the reader’s mind with appropriate strength.

Miss Wonderly is the novel’s female lead: the second most important character after Sam Spade. Effie is just a minor supporting character. Miss Wonderly needs to loom larger in the reader’s mind than Effie does. Hammett ensures that by dragging out Miss Wonderly’s entrance and by providing more details about her. Quite simply, he pays more attention to her than to Effie. He gives the reader lots of time to “watch” and appreciate the woman.

And that’s just in the passages I’ve quoted. There’s actually more to the set-up than I’ve given. Here’s the whole thing:

She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. Her eyes were brown and playful in a shiny boyish face. She finished shutting the door behind her, leaned against it, and said: “There’s a girl wants to see you. Her name’s Wonderly.”

“A customer?”

“I guess so. You’ll want to see her anyway: she’s a knockout.”

“Shoo her in, darling,” said Spade. “Shoo her in.”

Effie Perine opened the door again, following it back into the outer office, standing with a hand on the knob while saying: “Will you come in, Miss Wonderly?”

A voice said, “Thank you,” so softly that only the purest articulation made the words intelligible, and a young woman came through the doorway. She advanced slowly, with tentative steps, looking at Spade with cobalt-blue eyes that were both shy and probing.

She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.

The talk between Effie and Spade gives the reader a sense of anticipation: a remarkable woman is about to enter. Even before Miss Wonderly comes on stage, she’s described as a knockout. Then we hear her voice—soft with pure articulation. Only after that do we actually see her, and we get six sentences describing what she looks like.

By the end of the passage, the reader is very much aware that this woman is important. Her entrance was built-up and drawn out. She now occupies a sizable space in the reader’s brain.

Pacing, Not Padding

Devoting more words to something important isn’t padding, it’s pacing: building up something so that it doesn’t go by too quickly. Readers need time to absorb and appreciate what’s going on; otherwise, they don’t have a sense of the relative importance of your story’s elements (e.g. Miss Wonderly is much more important than Effie).

Of course, there can be exceptions. Sometimes you may want to brush quickly past something important so the reader doesn’t pay much attention. This is common in mystery stories, where crucial clues may be downplayed in order to sneak under the reader’s radar. Sometimes too you may choose to hit the reader with a passage that’s short and brutal rather than drawn out: you smack the reader’s mind with a hard sharp impact.

Still, most of your writing will follow the general principle: more words, more importance; few words, more forgettable. It’s comparable to the use of slow-motion in movies—when the hero finally punches out the villain, you don’t just let the punch fly past at full speed, over and done with in a fraction of a second. You slow it down; you show the impact and the villain being knocked backward; maybe you show it several times from several different angles. You show that this punch is The One that every other punch was leading up to. To do that, you have to give it enough time to happen.

Time’s Up

That’s plenty for this posting, but there’s still more to be said about description. Since I’ve just talked about punching, perhaps next time we should look at the gentle art of writing fight scenes. They’re a great example of using wordspace and other techniques I’ve discussed in previous posts. See ya!

Filed under For Novelists, language, learning to write, reading, writing process. You can also use this URL to trackback.

There is one comment. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

Pingbacks

  1. Did You See This… March | MiFiWriters

Have your say:

Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

Topics

Archives

Browse our archives:

RECENT BOOKS