Secrets of Goblins and Good Writing

I’ve in the middle of reading, with considerable delight, William Alexander’s debut fantasy novel Goblin Secrets. It just won a National Book Award for Young People’s literature, and it’s a wonderful piece of literary storytelling. I wanted to share one of his chapter starts, as it continues the “trick of particularity” point I made in a recent post about the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien, plus some other good writing techniques.

At the start of the third chapter, the young central character, Rownie, is sent on an errand to a gear-smith’s workplace (to fetch some oil for Graba, the witch) :

Broken gears and stacks of wood filled the alleyway outside Scrud’s workshop. Rownie heard shouting inside. He waited in the alley and rooted through some of the mess of gears until the shouting faded to a low mutter. Then he went in.

The noise did not actually stop. It never did. Mr. Scrud was always shouting to himself.

“Hello, Mr. Scrud!” Rownie called out from the doorway, hoping to be noticed now rather than later. The workshop smelled like sawdust and oil, with a rotten smell underneath. Scrud made very good mousetraps, but he never remembered to clean up the mice afterward.

Planks of wood, bars of copper, and gears stacked in piles and pyramids covered the floor. Dowels stuck out from the plaster of one wall, with ropes, chains, tools, and more gears hanging from them. Clocks hung on the other wall, so many that the wall looked like it was made out of clocks. They all worked, or most of them did – tocking and ticking in rhythms that clashed with each other. It sounded like an argument of clocks.

Scrud bent over his workbench in the middle of the room.

“Jellyweed and impsense!” he shouted at the bench. (. . .) He didn’t notice Rownie. There was a gearworked horse’s head on the workbench, and this did notice Rownie. The automaton’s eyes followed the boy as he picked his way across the floor and tried not to step on anything important.

Rownie took a deep breath. “Hello, Mr. Scrud!” he shouted again. The gearworker scared him, and always had scared him, but Rownie had been here often enough that the fear didn’t matter. He felt it, bright and burning, but it didn’t stop him from standing in the middle of the floor and shouting Scrud’s name.

As Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “Storytelling is shaped by two contrary, yet complementary, impulses – one toward brevity, compactness, artful omission; the other toward expansion, amplification, enrichment.”

In this passage, Alexander spins out a moment: the arrival of the young protagonist at the workshop of a cranky gear-smith. Notice a few tricks of the literary craft. First, the author uses a variety of senses, especially sounds and smells, not just a visual description of the workshop or the smith.

Second, Alexander gives the details from the viewpoint of the child, young Rownie (who is 8 or 10 years old, he’s not sure exactly). We see what Rownie sees, and we feel what he feels.

Third, notice the pacing, with a good amount of repetition (something Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out in her book Steering the Craft is a great tool for beautiful, powerful writing).

Next, the tone of the passage fits the book, which is full of tension and challenges. While this passage reminds me a bit of Zuckerman’s barn as described by E.B. White in Charlotte’s Web, this story of Goblin Secrets is a tougher, scrappier tale.

Finally, the passage is eminently suitable to read out loud – not surprising, as the author is also immersed in the lore of the theater, a professional interest that fueled this particular story in many ways, not the least in the fluid sound of the prose.

While this moment – as Rownie approaches and enters the workshop – pauses to look and smell and listen and allow the character to feel emotions, the book as a whole moves briskly, with an overall economy, unlike the oft-bloated tomes found in the fantasy genre. In Goblin Secrets, Alexander delivers a book with the economy of the theater playwright or the oral storyteller, with dialogue and scene movements and pauses valued, all meant to advance the story, not to describe or explain everything. This is the power of great writing, its ability to share words that fire up the reader’s imagination without overwhelming it.

From the National Book Award citation:

With a sure hand, William Alexander here creates a wholly convincing world of mechanized soldiers, chicken-legged grandmothers, sentient rivers, and goblin actors. In that uncertain landscape, young Rownie learns the mysterious craft of masking to search for both his brother and his own story, unaware that the solution to these searches may be the salvation of his city.

Goblin Secrets is a book that adults will enjoy as much as young readers. And for writers, it’s a worthy read, an enjoyable master class in delightful prose and captivating storytelling.

How To Build a Better Story – The Power of Repetition

[An excerpt from How To Write Your Best Story, by Philip Martin, Crickhollow Books, 2011]

Good storytellers know the value of throwing away the thesaurus and using one of language’s most beautiful forms of expression: repetition. As Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out in her excellent book of advice and exercises for writers, Steering the Craft, “Repetition of words, of phrases, of images . . . all narrators use these devices, and the skillful use of them is a very great part of the power of prose.”

Delight in repetition is seen in its purest form in the child who wants to hear the same story, time after time, told in the same way, perhaps with embellishments but with most of the same words repeated in familiar litany.

Repetition works in literature for adults, too.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

What is notable about that famous opening line?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. . . .”
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Repetition is a device pulled from oral tradition, from the bedtime stories of Three Bears or Pigs or Billy Goats Gruff to inspiring speeches by the likes of Winston Churchill:

“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

The success of this technique is rooted in its simple language. As Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges noted:

“At the beginning of their careers many writers have a need to overwrite. They choose carefully turned-out phrases; they want to impress their readers with their large vocabularies. By the excesses of their language, these young men and women try to hide their sense of inexperience. With maturity the writer becomes more secure in his ideas. He finds his real tone and develops a simple and effective style.”

Maturity in a writer doesn’t mean throwing around a lot of fancy words. A secret of successful writers is the ability to tell a story in a way that focuses everybody’s attention on the story, not on the brilliance of the author, pulling strings like a poorly concealed puppeteer.

(For more on writing a great piece of fiction, see the book How To Write Your Best Story.)

How To Build a Better Story – Read Your Work Aloud

Read at least a portion of your work aloud!

Stories were once upon a time primarily told orally. Not surprisingly, the cadence of what we consider to be an appealing story derives to great extent from what sounds good to our ears.

Also not surprisingly, a good number of excellent literary storytellers honed their skills by telling their tales aloud. It emphasizes the need to entertain an audience, to string sentences together in a pleasant way, and sometimes to let the story find its own way.

Richard Adams, for instance, spun an emerging story to his children on a series of car drives, till they began to ask regularly for “the rabbit story.” It became the bestselling book Watership Down.

Roald Dahl spun many of his fantastic tales to his children as he leaned against their bedroom’s doorframe.

Alice in Wonderland was created in 1865, in first draft in a boat, to entertain three children – the Liddell sisters, ages eight, ten, and thirteen – as Rev. Charles Dodgson and another minister rowed the children on a outing up the Thames near Oxford. To pass the time, Dodgson began a story about a little girl named Alice (the middle girl’s name), looking for an adventure. Pleased with the tale, young Alice asked Dodgson to write it down for her, and the reverend obliged with a manuscript that eventually became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Brian Jacques, author of the popular Redwall series, began it as a story for students at a school for the blind in Liverpool, where he delivered milk and volunteered as a storytime reader. For that audience, he knew he had to develop a style that would read well out loud: funny dialect voices, beautiful descriptive passages reminiscent of some of the loveliest elegiac moments in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and lots of swashbuckling action.

As a teacher, Philip Pullman told stories from the Odyssey & the Iliad to his students. He chose not to read the stories, but instead to “stand up and tell them the stories face-to-face,” which he did week after week, for twelve years of teaching young teens.

[T]he real beneficiary of all that storytelling wasn’t so much the audience as the storyteller. I’d chosen – . . . [for] good educational reasons — to do something that, by a lucky chance, was the best possible training for me as a writer. To tell great stories over and over and over again, testing and refining the language and observing the reactions of the listeners and gradually improving the timing and the rhythm and the pace, was to undergo an apprenticeship that probably wasn’t very different, essentially, from the one Homer himself underwent three thousand years ago.

As I wrote in How To Write Your Best Story:

Oral tellers have an unfair advantage. They can see immediately if their story is holding an audience’s attention. As needed, they can modulate their voice, vary the pace, exaggerate gestures. They whisper or growl; they slow down or spring into sudden action. And they watch to see if their delivery technique is working; if it isn’t, they modify it on the spot.

Good writers have to learn to do the same. You can’t literally watch, but you can try to do this in your mind’s eye. One helpful technique to is to read your work out loud. Let your characters fill the room with their arguments and passionate speeches – it will help you visualize a reader taking in your written words. Will they be sitting on the edges of their chairs? Or might they squirm in boredom?

In a 2003 interview, crime-novel author Harlen Coben explained his choice of career by saying what writers should hold dearest to our hearts: “I love stories.” And he offered his image of professional motivation:

“When I’m writing, what I pretend subconsciously is that we’re cavemen, we’re sitting around the fire, and I’m telling you stories. If I bore you, you’re probably going to pick up a big club and hit me over the head.”

– from How To Write Your Best Story

[I think, by the way, that’s an image lifted from E.M. Foster’s work, Aspects of the Novel.]

In any event, consider reading at least some extended passages of your writing out loud. Read the first three pages. Choose some other bits at random.

By reading aloud, you’ll appreciate the real value – cost vs. benefit – of each word. It pays to choose the right word, the most brilliant image, the ringing cadence. And you’ll stumble over the misplaced or mischosen or unnecessary words.

As you do . . . remember that caveman, reaching for his club.

(For more on writing a great piece of fiction, see the book How To Write Your Best Story.)

Hasselstrom’s Meditation on a Jar of Jelly

When I wrote my previous post to this blog on a whimsical piece by James Boswell and Samuel Johnson, I mentioned it made me remember a similar piece overflowing in a sense of place.

Here ’tis. It’s by a North Dakota writer, Linda Hasselstrom, who writes and runs a writer’s retreat at her home, Windbreak House, not too far from Rapid City in western South Dakota.

I ran across it quoted in The Sierra Club Nature Writing Handbook (1995), by John A. Murray.

The piece, like Boswell’s “Meditation on a Pudding,” finds an exultant sense of place in an item of food . . . for Linda Hasselstrom, in a jar of buffalo berry jelly.

This is an exquisite piece of writing, one that has stuck with me and that I often have shared in writer workshops as an example of flat-out great writing.

The jelly is a tawny peach color, and the flavor is hard to describe. I might compare it to apple pie with lemon: sweet, extra tangy. But another element lurks in the flavor that I can’t compare to anything else. I think it’s the essence of wildness, clean prairie air made solid. It contains the deer that nibbled the leaves in winter, the brush of a grouse’s wing as it picked berries from the ground, the blundering invulnerability of a porcupine living under the ledge. It’s the taste of blinding white drifts slowly being built and smoothed into glittering sculpture outside the house as you make morning toast, slathering it with butter and buffalo berry jelly. The jelly brings the flavor of summer heat to your tongue, a sheen of sweat to your shoulders; even as you watch the blizzard, it reminds you of spring fragrance and the cool nights of fall.

That paragraph (from “Finding Buffalo Berries” in her book Land Circle) never fails to bring a shiver of awe to me when I read it. The tongue of a poet, the eyes of a writer that sees the place around her . . . and knows how to write so that, like the jelly, “clean prairie air is made solid.”

In this article about her creation of Windbreak House as a writers’ retreat, Hasselstrom writes: “Edith Wharton once observed, ‘There are two ways of spreading light, to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.'” That was the inspiration for the writing retreats she hosts at Windbreak House.

She ends that article with:

Start with the closest spot of earth. . . . Sit outside at midnight and close your eyes; feel the grass, the air, the space. Listen to birds for ten minutes at dawn. Memorize a flower. . . . You can only benefit.

Great advice for writers. Take the time to look closely, inhale, exhale, and keep doing it until you’ve breathed in it. Then, you write.

A Sense of Place Pilgrim – Annie Dillard

To learn to see and write better, there are great books to inspire you.

One of the finest, an exquisite book of nature writing, is Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), winner of a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, an account of a year spend looking closely at the world centered around a creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

As Eudora Welty (no slouch herself when it comes to sense of place), wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “The book is a form of meditation . . . about seeing.”

Here’s a brief sample, in which she describes a breezy late afternoon in a plowed field:

The wind is terrific out of the west. . . . It’s the most beautiful day of the year. At four o’clock the eastern sky is a dead stratus black flecked with low white clouds. The sun in the west illuminates the ground, the mountains, and especially the bare branches of trees, so that everywhere silver trees cut into the black sky like a photographer’s negative of a landscape. The air and the ground are dry; the mountains are going on and off like neon signs. Clouds slide east as if pulled from the horizon, like a tablecloth whipped off a table. The hemlocks by the barbed-wire fence are flinging themselves east as through their backs would break.
– Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

A page or so earlier, she wrote:

Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here.
– Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a beautiful work, often compared to Thoreau’s Walden.

How does she do it? Dillard says that two things give birth to seeing: knowledge and love.

In another book, The Writing Life, she talks about writing, wonderfully, as climbing into a desk that floats in the air, as birds fly underneath:

Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. (. . . ) Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.

I strongly recommend Annie Dillard’s books, full of open eyes, open heart, and beautiful prose.

And then, seek in your own way to write descriptions of Place that share with your readers a feeling that you are in a wonderful place on “the most beautiful day of the year.”

The Power of Poe: Use of the Gripping Image

Imagery for a master writer isn’t just coming up with a nice turn of phrase . . . one that conjures up a sunset suddenly appearing like a distant marching band turning the corner . . . or the sense of a breeze on the skin like a silk scarf.

A truly compelling image is the one that grips your imagination by the throat and just won’t let go.

For examples, there’s no better place to turn than Edgar Allan Poe. Founder of the detective story, master of the creepy short story, and a quotable poet, this is his 200th anniversary (he was born Jan. 19, 1809), and I highly recommend the Read Street series of blog posts on Poe in the Baltimore Sun.

Here a couple of excerpts from those posts that refer to Poe’s command of the gripping image – how it can hold your attention and burrow into your brain.

Where in your own writing can you create and point the reader’s attention to a glorious, unforgettable image?

In this Read Street guest post by Rob Velella, creator of the Edgar Allan Poe 2009 Bicentennial Desk Calendar, Velella describes Poe’s timeless appeal:

Poe was the first author that I wasn’t ashamed to enjoy – and I remember what pulled me in were his sights and sounds. I heard the tremor in the narrator’s voice when he told me how “calmly” he would tell me the whole story. I saw the old man’s evil, vulture-like eye, blue film and all. I heard the sound of the old man’s heart, beating like the ticking of a watch when enveloped in cotton.

What appealed to me then is still what appeals to me now: his ability to take words that do more than tell a story, but show one. He was a writer of sensation, creating images that are impossible to forget – a writhing black tongue in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a shackled man in jester’s motley appealing “for the love of God!” in “The Cask of Amontillado,” and the one-eyed black cat sitting triumphantly on the head of a murdered wife in “The Black Cat,” just to name a few.

Here is another excerpt from the Read Street series on Poe, by a member of the South African-born mystery writing team known as Michael Stanley (with Michael Sears), Stanley Trollip’s Read Street blog post on Poe:

Of everything I read, I only recall a few vividly. The one that had perhaps the greatest impact on me was Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” After I turned the bedside light out, darkness brought vivid mental pictures of impenetrable cell walls and a gaping hole in the middle of my bedroom floor. The swish of curtains nearly caused cardiac arrest as I imagined a great scythe swing ever closer to my shaking body. I knew that creaks in the house meant that the walls were closing in. Mice running across the pressed metal ceiling of my room convinced me that rats were swarming all around my bed. My active imagination took its toll, and I was terrified for weeks after finishing the short story.

How did Poe achieve these effects? Here’s a bit from commentary on the “The Raven” poem, in the 1884 Harper & Brother edition (illus. by Gustave Doré), written by Edmund Clarence Stedman, a 19th-century poet.

The components of “The Raven” are few and simple: a man, a bird, and the phantasmal memory at a woman. But. . . . What have we? The midnight; the shadowy chamber with its tomes of forgotten lore; the student, — a modern Hieronymus; the raven’s tap on the casement; the wintry night and dying fire; the silken wind-swept hangings; the dreams and vague mistrust of the echoing darkness; the black, uncanny bird upon the pallid bust; the accessories of violet velvet and the gloating lamp.

He notes that “all this stage effect of situation, light, color, sound, is purely romantic, and even melodramatic,” but is so effective. The bottom-line: it works.

Here’s one last example, from “The Masque of the Red Death,” the description of the fitful effect caused by the hourly chiming of a “gigantic clock of ebony” that stood “against the western wall” in a set of princely rooms where a masked ball was being held.

Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies,) there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.

Poe had the knack for the image that stuck in the brain, like one from a dream that is odd, memorable, mysterious . . . and so concrete that you wonder if indeed you dreamed it . . . and pray to god that you did.

His feverish imagery isn’t necessarily to imitate, although masters like Stephen King have pulled it off, but to learn from. One of Poe’s tricks: he often combines description of the image with the distinct effect it has on those that encounter it.

The gripping image is a technique that can be used in powerful writing from journalism to fiction. Find the odd, eccentric, specific image that holds the imagination, and you can push the reader to feel emotions – of fear, unease, delight, or compassion – because of the power of their own imaginations to continue where you left off.

Cliches, Irritating Phrases, and Inflated Claims

At the end of the day, I personally, at this moment in time and with all due respect, want to say something fairly unique. Although it’s absolutely a nightmare to even try, but certainly not rocket science . . . let’s face it, I shouldn’t of started this literary blog for good writing advice, available 24/7, unless I was up to the task!

There! I’ve now officially used all of the “Top 10 Most Irritating Expressions” in the English language, per researchers at the University of Oxford.

For the record, here are the ten phrases that most irritate the good folks of Oxford:

1.  At the end of the day
2.  Fairly unique
3.  I personally
4.  At this moment in time
5.  With all due respect
6.  Absolutely
7.  It’s a nightmare
8.  Shouldn’t of
9.   24/7
10.  It’s not rocket science

In an Underwire (Wired Blog Network) blog post by John Scott Lewinski, he says the list is from a new book, Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare, by Jeremy Butterfield, a British lexicographer, looking at “the world’s largest language databank, the Oxford Corpus, which contains more than two billion words – to determine for the first time definitively how the English language is used.”

If you follow that Damp Squid link, the Oxford University Press claims in its online catalog [emphasis mine]:

This entertaining book has the up-to-date and authoritative answers to ALL the key questions about our language. Butterfield takes a thorough look at the English language and exposes its peculiarities and penchants, its development and difficulties, revealing EXACTLY how it operates. We learn, for instance, that we use language in chunks of words – as one linguist put it, “we know words by the company that they keep.” For instance, the word quintessentially is joined half the time with a nationality – something is “quintessentially American” or “quintessentially British.”

Wow! Did they really say “authoritative answers to all the key questions about our language”? And “revealing exactly how it operates“?

And what do you mean, “our language,” Kimosabe?

Must be quintessentially British to make such claims, don’t’cha think?

And how would you describe something that is closer to being unique than to being a very common thing or cliché? “Fairly unique” is the kind of thing we say here in the quintessentially American Midwest, where we tend to think some qualification is good. (And how do you prove that something is unique? I guess if you have “the world’s largest language databank” . . . ?)

So, is this List of Irritating Expressions unique? Or fairly unique?

Let’s face it, it’s not rocket science. Language is language. The test is what works.

And irritation is in the eye of the beholder.

How’s the Weather? (writing tip)

Here’s a great tip from Sid Fleischman:

Give weather reports. It helps the reality of a scene if foghorns are blowing or kites are in the sky on a windy afternoon or the day’s so hot wallpaper is peeling off the walls.

(Sid is a great author, winner of the 1987 Newbery Medal for The Whipping Boy. This comes from a page of tips on his website, a page called “9 Tips for Writing Stories.”)

Why mention the weather? Boring?

Well . . . maybe you can do it in a fun, not-so-ordinary way, like the wallpaper peeling from the heat.

But most of all, it helps your reader get into your story. We can imagine . . . a fresh April day with little flowers just peeking out from the warm dirt . . . or a blustery November day with dry leaves skittling across the sidewalk.

Hey, that’s better than just any old day.

And maybe you can add an extra detail. Is that sidewalk cracked?
What does a spring day smell like?

As an Italian author once said, even in fantasy lands (like Narnia), it rains (or snows). If your characters need an umbrella or a heavy coat or lots of sunscreen . . . it helps us imagine that your story is real.

And that’s a good boost – to make your story just a little better!

Read Your Work Out Loud

In a 2004 interview with Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate (2004-06), on the PBS News Hour, Kooser talked about writing with clarity – so that a piece or passage (in his case, a poem) could be understood by the average person. He recalled how early in his career, when he worked in the insurance business, he would bring a poem in to work and read it to his secretary:

I’m always revising away from difficulty and toward clarity. [. . .] I’d write every morning very early, and then I would bring my work in [to the insurance company where I worked] and I’d say, “Joanne, does this make any sense to you?” And if she said, “Well, no, it doesn’t,” then I would try to find out where it fell down for her.
– Ted Kooser

In an article I did not long ago for my Great Lakes Lit newsletter on the value of reading stories aloud, I mentioned a similar story from a few centuries earlier. The intro to the 1786 edition of Gulliver’s Travels refers to Jonathan Swift asking two menservants whether they understood the meaning of passages read out loud to them.

Swift’s desire: to ensure that his meaning was clear . . . not just to him but to a broader audience.

So often, we fail to recognize how our words force a new reader to stumble, or be puzzled, or to roll their eyes at some intrusion of purple prose or a lame cliche.

Reading passages of your work aloud, whether to your writing group or to a spouse (so few of us have valets, let alone secretaries, to listen to our drafts), is an excellent way to test at least the opening lines of a story or the key paragraph in your pitch letter.

Even if the audience is an imaginary one, reading aloud on your own will allow you to hear your words afresh, using a different part of the brain (and one that was less invested in writing those words . . . and more likely to find a few clunkers that can be improved).

Show Me (Don’t Tell Me!)

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”
– E.L. Doctorow (American author of the novel Ragtime, and other works)

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
– Anton Chekhov (Russian writer, 1860–1904)

“In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel . . . instead of telling us the thing is ‘terrible,’ describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was ‘delightful’; make us say ‘delightful’ when we’ve read the description.
– C.S. Lewis (British author of the Narnia series)

These famous writers – one American, one Russian, one British – agreed: the trick of a good writer isn’t to “tell” your readers what to feel . . . but to help them feel it (or see it) for themselves.

Here are some “before and after” exercises by Mary-Lane Kamberg, author of The I Love To Write Book and director of a summer workshop for young writers.

After you’ve read them . . . take a story or poem you’ve written. Is there a place where you could change (or improve) something that just “tells” us something outright (“The moon is shining”) to a richer description (“the glint of light on broken glass”) . . . to show us?

Show, Don’t Tell (examples)

1. Brooke was afraid to get on the plane.
Better: Brooke hesitated at the opening to the jet way. She looked back at her father on the other side of the glass.

2. Amy hurt Jennifer’s feelings.
Better: Jennifer turned away, fighting back tears.

3. I was worried when no one answered the phone.
Better: The sound of the phone ringing buzzed in my ear. I paced the length of the room several times, waiting for someone to answer.

4. Brandon was confused.
Better: Brandon looked at the room number. He looked at his class schedule and then back at the room number. He cocked his head and shrugged.

5. The monster was strong.
Better: The monster wrapped its claws around the trunk of the old oak and pulled it out by the roots as if it were a skinny dandelion in the lawn.

6. Martin is sick.
Better: Martin coughed again. He shivered and pulled the blanket over his shoulders.

7. Becky was excited when the bus arrived.
Better: When Becky saw the bus, she jumped and clapped.

8. Clayton was heartbroken when his hamster died.
Better: Clayton sat on the floor and cradled the limp hamster to his chest. He rocked and rocked. His mother knelt beside him.

9. The room was too hot.
Better: Elizabeth dabbed the back of her neck with a handkerchief. Perspiration formed on the bridge of her nose. She picked up a magazine and fanned herself.

Activity for your “Idea Keeper” (Writing Notebook)

At the top of a page, write a sentence that describes something common:
(“George was tall.” “Mary was well-dressed.”)
Now . . . can you think of ways to describe that so we see it?

Try different ways of showing us. Try short ways and long ways. Funny and serious. Positive (the reader is supposed to like the person) and negative (we dislike that person).

Have fun with this! (And add to it over time when you think of new ways to describe common things or feelings.)

Throw Away the Thesaurus (on Repetition)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

What is notable about that famous opening line?


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. . . .
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Repetition is a device pulled from oral tradition, from the bedtime stories of three Bears or Pigs or Billy Goats Gruff to inspiring speeches by the likes of Winston Churchill:

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

The success of this technique is rooted in its simple language. As Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges noted:

At the beginning of their careers many writers have a need to overwrite. They choose carefully turned-out phrases; they want to impress their readers with their large vocabularies. By the excesses of their language, these young men and women try to hide their sense of inexperience. With maturity the writer becomes more secure in his ideas. He finds his real tone and develops a simple and effective style.

Maturity in a writer doesn’t mean throwing around a lot of fancy words.

A secret of successful writers? The ability to recognize and tell a story . . . in a way that focuses on the story, not on you as a brilliant writer, pulling strings like a poorly concealed puppeteer.

Here is a passage by E.B. White, a true craftsman of clear, beautiful language. He is introducing a barn, but not just any barn. It is Homer Zuckerman’s barn in Charlotte’s Web, the setting where much of the novel will take place, where Charlotte the spider, lives.

Note how the passage starts with simple, repetitive sentences.

Then White builds on that. He introduces the sense of sweet patience that is the barn itself. We pause to enjoy the diverse scents, taking them in, as we begin to image the place fully for ourselves. We learn who shares the space: the cat, the cows, horses, sheep.

The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell – as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.

The barn was pleasantly warm in winter when the animals spent most of their time indoors, and it was pleasantly cool in summer when the big doors stood wide open to the breeze. The barn had stalls on the main floor for the work horses, tie-ups on the main floor for the cows, a sheepfold down below for the sheep, a pigpen down below for Wilbur, and it was full of all sorts of things that you find in barns: ladders, grindstones, pitchforks, monkey wrenches, scythes, lawn mowers, snow shovels, ax handles, milk pails, water buckets, empty grain sacks, and rusty rat traps. It was the kind of barn that swallows like to build their nests in. It was the kind of barn that children like to play in. And the whole thing was owned by Fern’s uncle, Mr. Homer L. Zuckerman.

Good storytellers know the value of throwing away the thesaurus and using one of language’s most beautiful forms of expression: repetition. As Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out in her wonderful book on writing technique, Steering the Craft:

Repetition of words, of phrases, of images; repetition of things said; near-repetition of events’ echoes, reflections, variations . . . all narrators use these devices, and the skillful use of them is a very great part of the power of prose.

C.S. Lewis is another who uses a storytelling prose to good purpose in his Narnia books. He has no fear of repetition and simple words to deliver deep concepts; to use, as Le Guin says, echoes, reflections, variations. As in the samples given above, Lewis uses the technique to communicate great power and confidence. Here, early in The Silver Chair, heroine Jill Pole awakes by a steam to meet the lion, Aslan, lying nearby, “head raised and its two fore-paws out in front of it, like the lions in Trafalgar Square.”

“If you’re thirsty, you may drink.”
They were the first words she had heard since Scrubb [her friend] had spoken to her on the edge of the cliff. For a second she stared here and there, wondering who had spoken. Then the voice said again, “If you are thirsty, come and drink,” . . . and the voice was not like a man’s. It  was deeper, wilder, and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice.  . . .
“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion. . . .
“Will you promise not to – do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion. . . .
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh, dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

Instead of trying to dazzle with fancy verbal fireworks, great writers from C.S. Lewis to Ursula K. Le Guin, from E.B. White to Charles Dickens, know how to use the tools of beautiful language. One of the most powerful is that of repetition: the flowing cadence of an orator, the soothing lilt of “come hither and I’ll tell ye a tale.”

A bit of repetition can resonate and create an intimate bond . . . to draw the reader into the circle of your story.

Oh, Lovely Rotten Apple!

Without leaving the house I know the whole universe.
– Lao Tzu

I discovered the secret of the sea in meditation upon the dew drop.
– Kahlil Gibran

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,
And the pismire [the ant] is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren . . .
– Carl Sandburg, in Leaves of Grass

These writers all share something in common: a belief in the amazing power of commonplace details to hold greatness. Or as American poet (and doctor of medicine) William Carlos Williams said, “Write what’s in front of your nose.”

Williams is famous for the line, “No ideas but in things.” His work touches on Zen-like notions that the “ordinary” is the same as beauty or enlightenment. Here’s a short, elegant poem by William Carlos Williams:

0 lovely apple!
beautifully and completely
hardly a contour marred–

perhaps a little
shrivelled at the top but that
aside perfect
in every detail! 0 lovely

apple! what a
deep and suffusing brown
mantles that
unspoiled surface! No one

has moved you
since I placed you on the porch
rail a month ago
to ripen.

No one. No one!

Williams takes a common image – an apple – but with a twist. The poem celebrates the apple’s rottenness. But then Williams moves from the thing into the idea, some deeper questions of blemishes or beauty perceived.

Details, details, details! These are the elements that bring out the uniqueness in the everyday, the quirky in the commonplace. The idea in the thing.