The language of fiction is word-pictures

© 2013 by Robert J. Ray

Word-pictures, whether they stand still like photographs, or whether they roar like the wind, come from concrete nouns: “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.”

This famous word-picture opens A Farewell to Arms (1929), a war-novel by Ernest Hemingway. There are two abstract nouns in this opening sentence – summer and year – and five concrete nouns: house, village, river, plain, mountains. There is one object – the house – anchoring  four generic landmarks: village, river, plain, and mountains. The ratio of concrete nouns to abstract is 5:2, enough concrete nouns to paint a picture that locks down the opening of the novel.

The view is panoramic, like a photograph or a landscape painting. The narrator is First Person. The pronoun “we” links the narrator – a volunteer ambulance driver from the American midwest in search of love and adventure in the Great War of 1914-1918 – to  his ambulance driver buddies. The word-picture in this opening line puts an implied distance between the narrator in the village and the fighting in the mountains, where the Italians battle their Austrian neighbors.

The distance comes from the active verb of perception (looked) and the adverb of distance (across) and the generic concrete nouns: River, Plain, Mountains. He uses the generic nouns to paint a panoramic word picture about physical safety: stay in the generic village and you stay alive. Leave the village for the archetypal mountains and you get hurt.

In sentence number two, the narrator changes the generic word-picture to a close-up of a river running through the village: “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.” No abstract nouns, seven concrete nouns – bed, river, pebbles, boulders, sun, water, channels – hold the word-picture close. The narrator looks down; the water is moving. The narrator is not moving; his eye is a Camera Eye.

Practice this technique for your rewrite, when your narrator stands still. Painting a picture of what the Eye sees is a hundred times more interesting than a cozy expository aside couched in Armored Prose.

Sentence number three adds more movement, bringing the symbolism of troops marching to disturb the surface of the static panorama of river and plain: “Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.” The soldiers march along the road; the road leads across the river and the plain to the mountains.

Three word-pictures join to make one word-picture that deepens with each sentence. The writing is very good. There is movement without a thundering herd of strong verbs. The verbs get stronger in the third sentence with raised and powdered.  For a glimpse of Operation Ratio, let’s use a grid to check concrete nouns versus abstract nouns.

Concrete Concrete Concrete Abstract
housevillageriver

plain

mountains

bedriverpebbles

boulders

sun

water

channels

troopshouseroad

dust

leaves

trees

summeryear
5 7 6 2

Unpacking the grid: The three sentences from A Farewell to Arms have a combined total of 75 words. Total nouns is 20. The ratio of concrete to abstract is 18:2 or 9:1. Sentence one is a static picture. Sentence two is a river moving. Sentence three is troops marching. World-class writing like this comes from making stylistic choices.

When you write your first draft, you should ignore style and go for story and character, heat and voltage. When you rewrite, you take the time to assess your language with Operation Ratio—a device for measuring the weight of words in your prose. The weight of words is a guide to making stylistic choices when you rewrite.

If you take the time to measure before you attack the pages with a fierce line-edit, you can develop a strategy for your rewrite. Be efficient, make every move count, and you won’t waste fuel. With hard work, you will see real progress, itself a concrete, verifiable measure of satisfaction and writerly self-worth.

Caveat: Line editing without a strategy of making word-pictures means the writer hops from line to line, working the style, fixing the language on the page. Working the words in a line-edit, you have the single page before you, the perfect target for your attack. You can gouge the page with pencil, ballpoint, magic marker, or computer cursor. In a single mouse move, you can strike out bad words and replace them with good words. This is power, heady stuff for us writers.

You can cut and paste paragraphs. You can punch the insert key and weave new words between the webbed strands of your syntax. After the chaos of the discovery draft (discovery means writing in creative free-fall, as described in The Weekend Novelist), line-editing feels right because it’s so linear, so close, so precise, so controllable, so framed by margins.

But remember that line-editing is left brain. The left brain is home base for critic, editor, engineer, accountant, and judge. The left brain helps us to count, to plan, to read a map or scope a blueprint or build a cathedral. The left brain hates a mess; it dearly loves to tidy up.

Because line-editing allows you to make those stylistic choices, because the act og gouging the page activates the left brain, you flirt with revenge. Revenge happens when the Left Brain gets even with the Right Brain, payback for all the fun of writing a messy, but powerful, rough draft. If the Left Brain smothers the words, if it kills the writing dead with an excess of grammar and rule and rule and hot bile, then you’ll hate yourself.

To extract the best work from your left brain, you need a plan of attack. A base camp where you can launch your assault on language in your personal grail quest for style. For salvation, stick tight to the discipline. If you lose your way in the jungle of words, come back to this mantra: The language of fiction is word-pictures; the sharpest word pictures come from a savvy mixture of concrete nouns and strong verbs.

For specific exercises on line-editing, see TheWeekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel