June 15, 2016 by bradcharlesbeals
Can the narrative mode work better at description than the descriptive mode itself? The opening to Ron Hansen’s bestseller says, Yes. Yes it can. If it’s done like this…
He was growing into middle age and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. Green weeds split the porch steps, a wasp nest clung to an attic gable, a rope swing looped down from a dying elm tree and the ground below it was scuffed soft as flour. Jesse installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evening as his wife wiped her pink hands on a cotton apron and reported happily on their two children. Whenever he walked about the house he carried several newspapers—the Sedalia Daily Democrat, the St. Joseph Gazette, and the Kansas City Times—with a foot-long .44 caliber pistol tucked into a fold. He stuffed flat pencils into his pockets. He played by flipping peanuts to squirrels. He braided yellow dandelions into his wife’s yellow hair. He practiced out-of-the-body travel, precognition, sorcery. He sucked raw egg yolks out of their shells and ate grass when sick, like a dog. He would flop open the limp Holy Bible that had belonged to his father, the late Reverend Robert S. James, and would contemplate whichever verses he chanced upon, getting privileged messages from each. The pages were scribbled over with penciled comments and interpretations; the cover was cool to his cheek as a shovel. He scoured for night crawlers after earth-battering rains and flipped them into manure pails until he could chop them into writhing sections and sprinkle them over his garden patch. He recorded sales and trends at the stock exchange but squandered much of his capital on madcap speculation. He conjectured about foreign relations, justified himself with indignant letters, derided Eastern financiers, seeded tobacco shops and saloons with preposterous gossip about the kitchens of Persia, the Queen of England, the marriage rites of the Latter Day Saints. He was a faulty judge of character, a prevaricator, a child at heart. He went everywhere unrecognized and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers and merchants, calling himself a cattleman or commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch.
A Dirty Ten-Letter Word.
Exposition. It’s that wordy mode of discourse that explains, clarifies, or elucidates. It prepares the reader for something, or it interprets what just happened. Exposition is writing that does our thinking for us.
It’s also writing that just plain kills good fiction (apologies to my 19th C friends: you guys knew how to do exposition well, but it’s a lost art now).
So like any good, modern American fiction writer, Hansen foregoes exposition. He shows rather than tells.
But he doesn’t stop there.
When a writer deliberately avoids exposition, he or she will rely on action and sensory description to carry the meaning. Hansen goes beyond even this and foregoes the descriptive voice too, relying almost exclusively on the narrative.
How does he do this? you ask.
With the Verbs.
There are 38 at work here, but only four are linking verbs, the workhorses of description. Here they describe the ground under the dying elm tree as scuffed and soft, James as a faulty judge of character, the Bible’s cover as cool to the cheek, and its pages as scribbled over.
And that’s it for the descriptive mode of discourse.
The remaining 34 are action verbs. Three of these convey the setting (more on that later). The rest are Jesse James in action: Jesse walking his house with a .44 tucked into a newspaper, Jesse braiding dandelions into his wife’s hair, Jesse practicing out-of-the-body travel, Jesse eating grass, and so on.
Simple, brief segments of narration, but each one loaded with description, each telling us more about the man than a paragraph of exposition could.
It’s narration that describes.
But there’s more. The entire passage is also written in the active voice. Active voice places the emphasis on the subject and allows for urgency. The passive voice spreads the emphasis around and tends to slow the pace of the writing. Here the subject HE is used 16 times and followed by an action verb each time. It is Jesse James in action. He is doing these things. Things are not done to him.
So even though Hansen doesn’t write in the descriptive mode, the effect is overwhelmingly descriptive. And what we end up with is a masterful portrait rather than a clear photograph, a deep impression of a man rather than an accurate, but thin, profile of an historical figure.
Oddly enough, I think the best example from this passage of active voice and narration as a means of description doesn’t involve Jesse James at all, but the setting around him…
“Green weeds split the porch steps, a wasp nest clung to an attic gable, a rope swing looped down from a dying elm tree…”
This would normally be passive and descriptive territory for me. I would not have thought to put the weeds into an active role. Weeds are just there. Or places are overgrown by weeds. Or porch steps are weedy. But Hansen gives them action. The weeds split the steps. He does the same with the wasp nest and rope swing. They’re static, passive things, but he has them cling and loop.
I’ve gotten better at the habit of active voice, but this passage shows me I’ve got work to do in extending it to new places. This has to come as a matter of sight for me. At the very least I need to “unsee” setting as a static thing to be described. I’m a story teller, so I should narrate there too, all the way to the weedy edges.