This is the old “agony of defeat” image from “Wide World of Sports,” courtesy of DayBreakDevotions.wordpress.com.
There’s a scene in the science-fiction TV series Babylon 5 where Morden, the affable emissary for an ancient, powerful, and sinister species called “Shadows,” pays a surprise visit to Londo Mollari, the tormented future ruler of the Centauri Empire. Londo assumed Morden had died after a thermonuclear detonation demolished the Shadows’ home planet. Formerly personable and presentable, with glossy hair and a shiny smile, Morden arrives wrapped in a cloak. Under the hood, Londo glimpses radiation-damaged skin and raw flesh beneath. As they converse, Morden peels dead skin flakes off his hand. He leaves after issuing a quiet threat, and the camera focuses on the skin flakes he’s left behind, blown across a tile floor by a breeze from an open window.
Those skin flakes haunted me.
Skin flakes under a microscope, courtesy of microlabgallery.com
They disturbed my dreams, and not just because of their creepiness. They fired my writer’s heart with the power a well-chosen image could wield.
That image crystallized what I’ve always wanted descriptions in my work to do: to capture a mood, a history, and/or a future threat, all in a single unforgettable image.
As I’d noted in a previous post, too often, developing writers assume descriptive passages need to read like laundry lists. A camera captures everything, from the decor in the room where Londo meets Morden to the clothes they’re wearing (opulent royal-court garments for Londo, plain, heavy cloak for Morden). Why shouldn’t a written description do the same? But written descriptions unfold in time differently from visual depictions. Our eyes can absorb all these visual details at once when we’re watching a film or TV show. When reading, however, the details appear in sequence rather than simultaneously. Densely descriptive passages slow the story’s pace–hence the need for well-chosen words to set the scene. Now here’s the magic: the reader’s imagination fills in the rest.
That’s why the disturbing image of those shed skin pieces on the floor would pack that much more potency in writing.
Before I started writing novels, I wrote poetry. Unless you write epic poetry, this is the most compressed literary form. A few lines can bear colossal weight–of feeling, of significance. A poem resembles a diamond: intense heat and pressure compacts carbon molecules into this glittering perfection, a substance both hard and brilliant. Replace the carbon molecules with words, add imagination’s heat and pressure, and you arrive at a poem: a word-jewel bright and flashing, but also strong enough to cut anything. It’s no wonder diamonds appear both in jewelry and in industrial cutting tools. Descriptions can do this double duty too: they can adorn, but they can also slice through the surface story to the depths where emotional power and meaning reside.
Imagery’s very power can also present irresistible temptation of the “if a little is good, then more is better” variety. (Think about children slathering ketchup on their fries and discovering that fries floating in ketchup soup aren’t as palatable as they’d hoped.) The “more” isn’t restricted to the laundry-list problem. It can also mean investing a metaphor with too much symbolic weight, or an unsuccessful example of extended metaphor (where the image shows up repeatedly in different situations). Descriptions are like superpowers: the writer takes an oath to use them wisely, for with great writing power comes great writing responsibility.
Here are a few examples of the descriptive power I’m trying to conjure.
Toni Morrison is one of my favorite writers, combining an arresting style with a paladin-physician’s bravery in exploring national wounds, past and present, to effect healing that’s both painful and purifying. This passage from her 1973 novel Sula haunted me–a whole world in a teaspoonful of ground glass:
“…a day so hot that pregnant wives leaned up against trees and cried, and women remembering some three-month-old hurt put ground glass in their lovers’ food, and the men looked at the food and wondered if there was glass in it and ate it anyway because it was too hot to resist eating it…”
What grievous hurt could your lover have done that you feel tempted, on a superheated day that brings out the rage and resentment along with the sweat, to grind up glass and dust his food with it? And it’s not just one woman scorned; it’s every woman whose partner has ever wounded her. And it gets worse: the men suspect their food has been laced with shards, perhaps lethal, and still they eat it because the heat (and the sizzling weight of oppression) has beaten the resistance out of them.
Wow, all that in a teaspoonful of glass powder.
Ernest Hemingway’s name has become a byword for terse, bare-bones writing, so for years I (as an unashamed descriptive maximalist) avoided reading his work for fear that I’d have to slog through sentences like “It was dark. Very dark. Super-dark. Yup.” Then I took a course in graduate school that included his short stories and a novel or two and was struck by the spare lyricism of the opening paragraph from A Farewell to Arms:
“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”
Hemingway’s prose is clear and direct, the word choices simple enough that a child can read this passage. And yet the clarity and lucidity allow the reader to peer down into the stream, the road, and the soldiers marching by and see the implications. How many will return up that road? How many will fall like the leaves and be washed away like the pebbles? Time passes, youth passes–or gets spent on old men’s wars. As with the sentence from Sula above, this paragraph carries so much: as the stream bed bears the weight of water, as the road bears the weight of young lives.
I used to hear sports coaches talking about having, or putting, “skin in the game”–that is, you’re not playing hard, with full awareness and dedication, unless you’ve gotten some of your flesh rubbed off during play. Powerful descriptions are your skin in the game, the pain and passion of the human experience that gets rubbed off your life and into your words.
Skin in the game; skin on the floor. They linger in the reader’s heart, raising your words to the level of resonant, disturbing, disruptive, and glorious truth.