Ask Mr. Writing Person: Subcranial Ravioli
In this week's Ask Mr. Writing Person, we tackle Paris Hilton horror and the similarities between brains and ravioli. Bring a sick sack, because you're going to need it for the Ernest Hemingway parts. Here's Ron Smiley from Hell, Michigan, who's having problems [Ed: snicker--look, I do it, too] writing vivid description:
Q. I'm writing a horror novel--not supernatural horror, just natural horror--
A. A lot of natural things are pretty horrifying. Just look at Paris Hilton.
Q. Natural horror. So anyway--
A. You're doing Paris Hilton horror--
Q. --and I keep writing really short sentences, and I like the pacing overall, but in some places I need to slow down and really show the reader what's around the point-of-view character. How do I do that?
A. Can you shoot us an example?
Q. Sure. Here's one of my primary offenders:
Marshall entered the room and took in his surroundings. It was cold. On the floor lay a dead man, face down, his brains spilled onto the floor.
A. Delicious. Well, young Philistine, you could always try Ernest Hemingway's approach and make the reader actually stop:
Marshall entered the room. Took in his surroundings. It was cold. On the floor. Lay a dead man. Face down. Brains. Floor.
A. No kidding. I can't read Hemingway without hanging a sick sack from my neck first. I think what you really need is simile and metaphor. We'll do similes first. For example, this really throws the scene into vivid relief:
Marshall entered the room like a geriatric disco chimp and took in his surroundings. It was cold, like the middle of the sun isn't. On the floor lay a dead man, like a dead fish, face down. His brains were spilled onto the floor like a bowl of stuffed ravioli in marinara sauce. Marshall stepped over the dead body, scooped up a sample, and tasted it. It wasn't ravioli.
Q. Why is my character tasting the dead guy's brains?
A. You're the author. Why do you think he's tasting the dead guy's brains?
Q. I don't know! You made him do it!
A. You have the imagination of a Philistine, Ron. Consider two reasons. First, at the style level, it highlights the difference between how brains and ravioli taste, which strengthens the similarity in appearance. Second, at the story level, Marshall used to be a professional taster for a high-class international zombie pot luck club.
Q. He didn't! I'm not writing supernatural--
A. Let's get back to the issues. I want to call your attention to this little emerald:
It was cold, like the middle of the sun isn't.
This is a little-used technique called subcutaneous reflexism, which is Greek for "nails on a chalkboard." The opposition of "cold" and "the middle of the sun" really highlights how cold it is. Clever, isn't it?
A. Also, behold this darling little sentence:
On the floor lay a dead man, like a dead fish, face down.
This is called a transitive redundancy, which really hammers the point home that the guy is dead, in case the reader didn't understand it the first time. Readers are really dense, and a lot of times you have to resort--
Q. What's up with the disco chimp?
A. Have you been listening to me?
Q. Not really. I got hung up on the disco chimp part.
A. There is no disco chimp. It's just a simile. Forget about it. Let's see... where were we?
Q. I don't know.
A. Of course you don't. Let's go on to metaphors. Metaphors are like similes, except you lie to the reader about what things really are in order to call attention to the similar properties of the things you're comparing. It works especially well when there are a lot of similar properties, like Marshall and a disco chimp, or brains and ravioli.
Q. Marshall is nothing like a disco chimp, and brains are nothing like ravioli.
A. Have you ever been a brain taster for a zombie pot luck club? No? Marshall has, and he says they're very similar in texture. And he was discoing like a geriatric chimp when he told me. Q.E.D.
A. It stands for quod erat demonstrandum, which is Latin for "so there." We need to continue, so let's see how much more vivid the paragraph is with metaphors instead of similes:
Marshall the geriatric disco chimp entered the room and took in his surroundings. It was cold in the middle of the not-sun. On the floor lay a dead fish, face down, its stuffed ravioli in marinara sauce spilled onto the floor. Marshall stepped over the dead body, scooped up a sample, and tasted it. It wasn't really ravioli, though I did say that earlier. I lied.
Now isn't that a hundred percent more descriptive?
Q. Marshall's not a chimp, he's not in the middle of the "not-sun," whatever the bloody crap that is, and the dead guy's not a fish.
A. I know, young grasshopper. We lied for the sake of imagery.
Q. You mean I'm an untrustworthy narrator now?
A. Every narrator is, to some extent. You just happen to tell real whoppers about things like disco chimps and ravioli.
Q. You know, I think I'll stick with my original version. Thanks a lot.
A. That's fine, you may scratch out your little Paris Hilton horror on your own. However, if you don't get women and fame and glory and millions in advertising revenue, please don't come crying to me. I have other, more willing Philistines to care for. Stay in your cardboard box and weep it out on your own.
Q. You've got some nerve, man.
A. I am a nerve.
Q. You're not.
A. I lied.