Recently (as in, like, this morning while I was making toast), I’ve been thinking about descriptions at the sentence level, especially as it relates to character, character voice, PoV, and worldbuilding. The opening chapter of Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is a masterclass in this (and, not incidentally, my favorite book opening of all time). You are dumped immediately into the world of the novel – the world of the Deliverator – from the moment those contact patches of his big, sticky tires hit the asphalt of Fairlanes Inc. Rte CSV-5.1
But instead of drinking from that fire hose, I’m going to focus on a sip of tea. Like, good tea. We’re talking the Mariage Frères Wedding Imperial of character voice descriptions.2 I’m talking about Bilbo’s line from The Fellowship of the Ring: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
Most people agree it’s a good line, but… man. That is such a good line. It tells you so much, in so little space, in a voice that is so essentially Bilbo, so fundamentally hobbitish in outlook, so situated both in the world of the novel and in the post-WWII ration era in which it was published, but also remains universal to most readers’ experiences – both the analogy, and the stretched-thin feeling it describes.3
That is the sort of writing (at the prose level) that I aspire to, and I’m so chuffed whenever I manage it. I also always look for it in the things I’m reading (though at the fire hose level it can get to be a bit much). Poets excel at it. Marie and I are in awe of Sonya Taaffe’s blog posts because of her descriptive prose chops. Catherynne Valente is also an expert of this sort of prose (though her writing tends to be like dark chocolate ganache for me. I can only eat it in nibbles).
As for how folks might incorporate more of this into their own writing? Fuck if I know. Read more poetry? Take a poetry class? I think a lot of it comes down to plucking your brain out of its usual routes and plopping it on a nameless neural pathway. There’s an old improv game that I think can help you do this – point at an object and then say aloud some other word that is not that object. Do this as fast as you can, for a good five minutes. Do this with other people around you doing the same thing. It’s hard, but it comes easier as you go. And it can be a great way to toss your neuron salad.
Or maybe spread pesto on your bread. It’s delicious, and a little goes a long way.
Dammit. Now I’m hungry.
1 While looking up the exact phrasing of those lines, I noticed something interesting on page 2 of my paperback copy: “Why is the Deliverator so equipped? Because people rely on him. He is a roll model.” And because of the way Stephenson writes, I honestly cannot tell if this is a typo or deliberate… because the Deliverator is in a car, talking about how he rolls? Anyone know the answer?
2 Fun fact: Marie arranged with a fan in Paris for them to buy a pound of Mariage Frères Wedding Imperial tea and bring it to her while she was in France for a conference – because we both love it and couldn’t find it in the States. Yes, Marie had a tea mule.
3 Not entirely universal, but at least among cultures that eat bread with some sort of spread. I’d be interested to see how that line is handled in translations – does bread and/or butter get replaced by local cuisine, or is the line kept pure and readers are expected to adapt.