The Inner World Mirrored in the Outer Landscape
We live in a rushed world. Things are being done in a hurry. And we have too much, from carbs to political drama, from the quantity of book titles published in any given year to the number of flights we take. Fiction writers wonder how to respond to the ‘attention market.’ How to grab and hold on to the reader? His patience, her attention span? And since at its core fiction relies on the notion of suspension of disbelief, the stratagems many authors envision today are out of this world. Everything goes: time travel and the bizarre, the exceedingly supernatural and the bloody like hell. The effects are diabolical; the plot twists drastic; the more we rattle and surprise our saturated consumer, the better. Cliffhangers at the end of chapters have become the norm. The economy of expression is key. Kill all the adverbs. Use only verbs in the active tense. Write short paragraphs. People prefer dialogue.
Of course, it wasn’t always like that. One only has to go back a few decades, and writers were praised for their linguistic ingenuity and narrative skills — narration, implying descriptions, implying setting the scene.
The unity of time and place — what a notion! And yet, without it, fiction becomes ambiguous. The good storyteller starts slow. Drama builds up, but not before the stage is well set: the time period analyzed, the space of action defined, the characters described, dressed or undressed. The storyteller increases the tension gradually, after making sure we understand what we are witnessing. He lures us in, because, if we understand, we care. And when we care, we never forget.
I do not claim here that a good writer has to be exhaustive or overly detailed in his descriptions. Hemingway wondered how the great Russians of the 19th century could be brilliant and boring at the same time. Careless, he called them, because their work contained amazingly beautiful literature interspaced with sections that were preachy and dull.
In my opinion, descriptions are necessary, but in today’s world, they need to move the work forward (just like dialogue), and disappear in the background, like housework that never gets recognized. The rule I follow is that descriptions have to filter through the heart and soul of the character. Reflect the character’s mood. See the world through the character’s eyes. I am including two excerpts from my novel No Portrait in the Gilded Frame. It’s not to demonstrate how I do it, but because I want to hear if it works for you. Can you sense the mood of my character? Please let me know in your comments.
In the first excerpt, I describe my garden in Bucharest (where I grew up), seen through the eyes of my protagonist, Miriam Sommer. Jonathan, the love of her life, had just suggested to Miriam that she join him in America. She is happy, and the world seems to be looking fresh and clean.
A triangular courtyard was in front of the house, flanked by a concrete and wire fence that ran along the sidewalk and met at a sharp angle with a low brick wall. In the corner grew a tree covered in white flowers. The crowns of old oak and linden trees rustled behind the brick wall…The last time I had been here, the place had looked different. Now it was spring, and all around me nature was ruling. Greenery was budding, growing, blossoming, filling in, and hiding decay and imperfections. In the middle of the yard, tulip shoots were sprouting around a rusty waterspout. Fresh grass was trying to cover old car tracks leading from the double gate in the fence to the back of the house. Irises were blooming in a flowerbed by the side of the front door. A rosebush was letting out new leaves and thorns as rough and light green as the skin of a lizard. Three tall lilac trees swayed their opulent flowers in the soft wind, over the fence and into the street. The lilac looked heavy against the pale blue sky, rich and sensuous. Tiny petals fluttered to the ground. Weeds grew in cracks between the concrete base of the fence and the sidewalk. Ants crossed the sidewalk and continued along the curb to a little white anthill. A tomcat dashed across the street and disappeared behind the poplars.
The second excerpt describes the view Miriam sees in San Diego at the end of the seventh day of Shiva, after Jonathan’s death.
On the last day of shivah, after prayer, we all went out and walked for not more than twenty minutes through the neighborhood. It was the customary way of reconnecting to the world outside. The sun was setting, and the evening was peaceful. There were no people in the streets, only the rare swishing of cars and the rustling of leaves. The sky was dark blue. The air was fragrant. A few white clouds floated in the wind. To the west, the ground dropped, and from certain places we could see the bay and the Coronado Bridge in the distance between the houses. Gardens were full of blooming flowers, their petals bright and delicate. As a painter, I always thought of my surroundings, of how the sky and the water and the trees were different in one place from any place else, or of how similar they really were, how vast and how never ending. How on a spring day in Bucharest in front of Constantin’s house I saw nature exploding. How I saw orderly ants, a cat, and beautiful lilac trees. How I knew that the San Diego Bay reminded me of the Bay of Haifa, and how distinct they really were, continents apart. How the air could be hot or freezing cold, or humid, or dry, and I would breathe it in all the same. But if I stopped now and looked, if I thought about such things now, if I really felt the world around me, I would stop breathing. I would understand how insignificant I was, how few people cared about my pain, how Jonathan’s death didn’t matter, and how all of us would die soon. I didn’t stop, and that evening as we walked, none of us talked. We went down one hill, up another, and back to the house.
What do you think? Do you skip over long descriptions when reading a novel? Is ‘what happens next’ more important than where it all takes place, and how the characters view their surroundings?