The smartest thing I ever heard in a writing workshop was Tim O’Brien’s exhortation to avoid unintentional repetition: never repeat a word on a page unless you mean to do it. This sounds obvious but can, in fact, be incredibly difficult. It’s not enough to find good synonyms. The solution often involves the complete rethinking of sentences and passages. That may sound intimidating, but it can sometimes be as simple as finding the right place for a character to stand.
A perfect example of the effect of viewpoint on prose style is Justin Carroll’s story, “Darryl Strawberry.” It was published in Gulf Coast, and you can read the first pages here.
How the Story Works
Every story contains a moment of necessary description: of a room, a table, a character. The way we often begin the passage is by identifying the thing being described: kitchen, table, the person’s name. This direct approach has two potential problems, though. First, it can be boring. Second, it aligns with our preconceived ideas of a kitchen, table, or what we already know about the character. Because it’s predictable, the passage can have a tendency to hew to and repeat predictable words. So, to write lively, unexpected prose, we need to find a less direct approach.
The following passage from Justin Carroll’s story “Darryl Strawberry” illustrates this less direct approach. This passage comes after the main character, Kidd Fenner, has found a note from his son that says, “I’m sorry. Can you meet me tomorrow at american legion field at six?” Fenner then gets in the car, and this is the scene that follows: (Notice the important, even necessary, words that Carroll avoids.)
The radio plays the same songs Fenner’s heard for twenty years or more: Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man,” “Big Shot,” by Billy Joel. He’s parked with his back to Safeway’s brightly-lit parking lot; all he can see are the shadowy outlines of the bleachers, the dugout blocked by clumps of snow, the skeletal cyclone fence that runs parallel with the first base line. On nice days, he and Nora picnicked by the fence and gave Henry encouraging fist pumps before he stepped onto the mound. Christ, Fenner wonders, how long since then? No more than two years ago, which might as well have been forever.
The words that he avoids, of course, are baseball and field. In short, Carroll has avoided naming the thing that he is describing. The result of this, at least in my reading, is that I was momentarily disoriented. (Since when does a Safeway parking lot have bleachers? But the details quickly oriented me. Dugout is pretty place-specific.) Because of that initial confusion, I paid closer attention. If Carroll had written baseball field in the first sentence, I would’ve scanned the rest, thinking, “Of course a baseball field has bleachers and a dugout.” An editor might have encouraged Carroll to cut those details and skip right to the line about encouraging fist pumps. If that had happened, what would be lost? Perhaps a sense of intimacy. The details draw us into a small but important moment. If the prose had just barreled onto the field, we might not appreciate or even notice that moment because we wouldn’t be paying attention.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s try writing a description that makes the reader pay attention, using “Darryl Strawberry” by Justin Carroll as a model:
- Choose the place. It can anywhere: indoors or outdoors, a room in a house or the house itself, a public place such as a store or a particular part of that place such as an aisle or the parking lot.
- Write a sentence that names the place. Be direct and simple: “The parking lot was full,” or “The kitchen was warm and full of inviting smells.”
- Ban yourself from using any of the words (minus articles and linking verbs) in that sentence. You’ve established the most predictable words that can be used to describe your place. Now, you can find better words.
- Decide where your narrator or observer will stand and write a sentence that states this. Even if your novel is in third person, even if it doesn’t privilege the point of view of one character, you can still position the point of origin of the description. If the observer is in the middle of your place, the description will read differently than if the observer is standing at the side or edge or watching from a distance. In “Darryl Strawberry,” the observer, Kidd Fenner, is “parked with his back to Safeway’s brightly-lit parking lot.”
- List, with brief descriptions, the most outstanding elements of the place. By outstanding, I mean, literally, the elements that stand out. Choosing those elements will depend on the limits placed on your observer. In “Darryl Strawberry,” the observer is limited by lack of light. But not all limits must be physical. They could also be emotional or mental: in other words, give your observer a pair of rose or other-colored glasses. Don’t dwell too long on any particular element of the description. Keep listing and describing new elements until you feel the urge to comment upon one.
- Comment on a description. In “Darryl Strawberry,” after the observer notices the mound, base paths, and fence, he remembers giving his son fist pumps before he pitched. Then, he thinks, “Christ…how long since then?” It’s memories and comments like those that are the description’s entire reason for being. They advance both the story and our understanding of the characters and their conflicts. That advancement can only happen, though, if the prose forces the reader to pay attention.
This same process can be used for describing a person—or anything, in fact. The goal is the same: avoiding predictable sentences in order to write unexpected ones. You may find that you’ve written at least one sentence that surprises you. If it surprises you, it will likely surprise the reader as well.