Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Gardner

“A big, friendly officer…”

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"A big, friendly officer..."

Note: This post is the fiftieth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 49. You can read the earlier installments here

“It is a time-proven rule of the novelist’s craft,” John Fowles writes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, “never to introduce but very minor new characters at the end of a book.” Fowles is being a little facetious here: the character whose first appearance these lines introduce is either God himself or a veiled surrogate for the author. But he makes a decent point. In what we think of as a properly constructed novel, the ending is a kind of recapitulation or culmination of all that came before, with a recurrence of characters, images, or themes that John Gardner has visualized in a famous image from The Art of Fiction. Introducing anything new at this point can feel like poor planning, and that’s especially true of the human players. Character, by definition, is revealed by action in time, and when you only have a handful of pages left to wind up the story, anyone who shows up at the last minute usually won’t have room to develop anything like a real personality. He or she feels like what the other characters might well be, but have had more of a chance to hide: a plot point, or a puppet.

Which only suggests that the rule against introducing new characters late in the story is just a particular case of a more general principle. A novel is a machine constructed to hold the reader’s attention, but the best novels keep their internal workings well out of sight. Among other things, this often involves concealing the real reason a character has been included in the story. Even in literary fiction, most characters are there for a specific purpose: to advance the plot, to illustrate a theme, to provide the protagonist with an important interaction or a moment of contrast. Sometimes a character will be introduced on page five for the sake of a scene two hundred pages later, and it’s the intervening space that makes it seem natural. When the gap between a character’s initial appearance and his or her reason for being there is reduced, we start to see the wheels turning, and that’s especially true near the climax of the novel, when the range of possibilities the story can cover is necessarily constrained. If a major character shows up fifty pages from the end, it often isn’t hard to figure out why.

"Taking the binoculars from Lindegren..."

What’s funny, of course, is that what seems like a departure from reality is actually a departure from a different kind of artifice. In real life, people don’t appear on schedule: enormous presences in our lives can be introduced at any time, and the sequence of events doesn’t fall into a neat pattern. We see this clearly in books or movies based on real incidents: a movie like Zero Dark Thirty struggles—very successfully, I might add—with the fact that the players in its climax are a bunch of guys we haven’t met before. It’s easier to accept this when the narrative presents itself as a true story, and a plot invented from scratch wouldn’t be likely to take the same approach. You might even say that a story that wanted to come off as factual could introduce new characters at any point, as they appear in life, but in practice, the result seems paradoxically less convincing. (This may be why when a major character is introduced late in the game, it’s often because he’s compelling enough to overcome any objection. My favorite example is Jean Reno in La Femme Nikita, who makes such an impression in the last thirty minutes that he ultimately got what amounted to a spinoff of his own.)

In Chapter 49 of City of Exiles—on page 342 of 396—I introduce a character named Timo Lindegren, a senior constable in the Helsinki police department. Shrewd readers, noticing how few pages remain in the novel and that a big chase sequence seems to be impending, might conclude that Lindegren has appeared on the scene just so he can be shot to death forty pages later, and in fact, they’d be right. I won’t pretend that Lindegren is anything other than a functional character, there to give Wolfe someone to talk to as she tracks her killer in the endgame and to die at the moment when the danger seems greatest. (He’s also there, and not trivially, to give Wolfe a handgun when she needs it.) And what strikes me now, reading these chapters over again, is that in a different version of the same novel, Lindegren might well have been introduced three hundred pages earlier, only for the sake of filling the exact same role he does here. If that had been the case, his function might not have been so obvious, but the late change of scene to Finland meant that he could only show up just in time to be knocked off. That’s essentially true of many other characters, but it feels particularly blatant here because we’re so close to the end. But he’ll stick around for a little while longer, at least before his abrupt exit…

“Whose locker is this?”

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"Wolfe headed inside..."

Note: This post is the forty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 47. You can read the earlier installments here

There’s a point in the audio commentary for one of the Bourne movies—I think it’s The Bourne Ultimatum—when director Paul Greengrass admits that he made things a little too easy. Bourne has narrowly avoided being assassinated at London’s Waterloo railway station, escaping with nothing but a dead reporter’s notebook, and he has no way of knowing who ordered the hit. Fortunately, the notebook happens to contain the name of an investment advisory firm that bankrolled the operation in question, so Bourne does what any of us would do in that situation: he googles it. He comes up with an address in Madrid, confirms it against a receipt in the reporter’s notes, and then he’s off to another big action scene. Needless to say, this all seems a bit too simple, and if we weren’t caught up in the movie, we might object to it. But Greengrass argues, and with good reason, that in this kind of story, it’s more important to move from one beat to the next as quickly and economically as possible, rather than derailing the momentum with a more plausible sequence of events.

I think he’s right. It’s easy to make fun of certain stories, especially thrillers and action movies, for the leaps of logic that the hero has to make to get from one stunt sequence to another. Even superficially more realistic procedurals are grounded less on real crime scene technique than on sudden flashes of insight, and if you were to cut all of them together, they would start to seem even more ridiculous. Yet it’s a convention that arises less out of a lack of concern about “realism” than from the set of rules that the movie itself has established. Plenty of films, from All the President’s Men to Zodiac, have made riveting cinema out of the tedium of ordinary reporting or investigative work, but they’ve been conceived before the fact in a way that prepares us for the kind of story we’re about to watch. A Bourne movie presents us with very different expectations: the only logic that matters is that of restless movement, and to the extent that the film presents certain elements more or less plausibly, it’s only to facilitate our larger suspension of disbelief. Bourne googles his way over a bump in the script because it was the most efficient way to get from point A to point B.

"Whose locker is this?"

We see this kind of compression and elision even at the highest levels of literature. I’ve always loved what John Gardner had to say about Hamlet, which includes a moment of high implausibility: the fact that the normally indecisive prince has no trouble sending Rosencrantz and Guidenstern to their deaths offstage, and with almost no explanation. “If pressed,” Gardner writes, “Shakespeare might say that he expects us to recognize that the fox outfoxed is an old motif in literature—he could make up the tiresome details if he had to.” He continues:

But the explanation I’ve put in Shakespeare’s mouth is probably not the true one. The truth is very likely that almost without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter…Shakespeare’s instinct told him, “Get back to the business between Hamlet and Claudius,” and, sudden as lightning, he was back.

In other words, it’s a question, like so much else in art, of prioritizing what is truly important. And sometimes realism or plausibility takes a back seat to advancing the overall narrative.

Many of the same factors come into play in Part III in City of Exiles. The previous section ends with Wolfe in London, helpless to prevent the crash of Chigorin’s plane; Part III concludes with her final confrontation with Karvonen in a tunnel beneath Helsinki. To get from one point to the next involves covering an enormous geographical distance and an even more tenuous chain of associations. Wolfe needs to figure out that the plane was sabotaged in Finland, find Karvonen’s contact at the airport, track her down, interrogate her, and preemptively think ahead throughout to anticipate where Karvonen will go now, all in exactly fifty pages. Pulling this off in a way that also kept the story going involved a fair number of shortcuts, as we see in Chapter 47, in which Wolfe identifies Karvonen’s accomplice thanks to the lucky glimpse of a volume of John Donne’s poetry in her locker. If this feels like something of a cheat, well, maybe it is. Still, I had little choice if I wanted to keep things moving. Playing this kind of card too often can strain plausibility to the breaking point, which hurts the story more than it helps. But here, it seemed more important to get Wolfe as soon as possible to her appointment under the city…

Written by nevalalee

September 11, 2014 at 9:01 am

The dot and the line

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Take a blank piece of paper and put a dot in the center. It’s the single most basic creative act imaginable—aside from deliberately presenting the viewer with an empty page, which is a different sort of statement—and it lies at the beginning of any work of art. Even the most complicated drawing or story is essentially an assemblage of dots or individual units, and in most media, the process can’t help but be sequential: you start with one unit, then add another, and even in works that unfold more rapidly in the author’s mind and hand, in theory, you could see each dot falling into place in sequence if you could slow the tape down far enough. And looking at that single dot reminds us of how much meaning and information can be packed into the simplest of artistic gestures. As Christopher Alexander notes in The Nature of Order, with the addition of a dot:

The space changes throughout the sheet of paper (and not only where the dot is), vectors are created, differentiations reaching far beyond the dot itself occur within the space. As a whole, an entirely new configuration has come into being, and this configuration extends across the sheet of paper as a whole.

When we add a second dot, another dimension is created. With it comes the possibility of direction and relationship: two dots imply a line, although the way in which it runs remains unclear. No matter how far apart on the page the dots are placed, as long as they’re within the viewer’s visual field, they’re perceived in relation to one another, as well as to such larger elements as the edge of the paper. An impression of order or disorder—or stillness or dynamism—can be created by how close together they are, whether or not the implicit line runs parallel to the edges, or whether one dot is larger than the other. What was absolute becomes relative, and that shift carries our first big hint of design, or even story. Two dots or words set side by side convey a meaning, as subtle as it might be, greater than the sum of the constituent parts, and much of the resultant power comes from that invisible line. In fiction, any kind of pairing or juxtaposition, whether it’s of two words, images, characters, or scenes, implies a logical relation, like a dream where two disconnected symbols occur together. We naturally look for affinity or causality, and for every line, we see a vector.


And when we add a third dot, we get something even more powerful. Instead of a line, we have a triangle, with all the possible variation it implies. This last leap—assuming that we’re confining ourselves to the two-dimensional page—is arguably the most profound, and any advances we make with a fourth or fifth dot are only incremental, and may even detract from the composition as greater complexity is introduced. This is why the rule of three is so central to all forms of storytelling: it’s the minimum number of elements required to convey shape, whether spatial or temporal, and if we’re convinced that simplicity matters, it’s not surprising that a story with three acts can seem more organic and satisfying than one with four or five. (This isn’t necessarily true, of course, but it’s worth noting that units of narrative often fall into odd numbers, probably because it preserves the idea, initially present in the number three, of a center. As Milan Kundera says: “I am not indulging in some superstitious affectation about magic numbers, nor making a rational calculation. Rather, I am driven by a deep, unconscious, incomprehensible need, a formal archetype from which I cannot escape. All of my novels are variants of an architecture based on the number seven.”)

It might seem like an empty exercise to reduce the creative process to such simple components, but it’s one that every artist should do from time to time, whether the unit in question is a dot, a word, or a musical note. As we grow more sophisticated in craft, we tend to think of our works in terms of their larger structures: many writers approach a story on the level of the paragraph, for instance, just as chess players see the board in chunks of pieces. Yet it’s important not to lose sight of the meaning implied in our most basic choices and juxtapositions. If there’s one characteristic that the greatest creative geniuses have in common, from Beethoven to James Joyce, it’s an uncanny ability to drill down into individual units while keeping the overall shape of the work in mind. That kind of intimate engagement with each piece is, necessarily, invisible: most artists would prefer that the dots and words fuse or blur together when the work is finally experienced, leaving an impression of a coherent whole. And emphasizing the parts over the whole can turn into another kind of indulgence, the kind that John Gardner called frigidity. But neglecting those pieces carries a risk of its own. And we often end up with a more beautiful work once we take a few dots away.

Written by nevalalee

June 30, 2014 at 9:38 am

“Wolfe entered the visitors’ room…”

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"Wolfe entered the visitors' room..."

Note: This post is the thirty-second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 31. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Given the recent lawsuit over “Stairway to Heaven” and its alleged similarities to “Taurus” by Spirit, there’s been a lot of talk online about where homage—or a common artistic language and tradition—shades into plagiarism. (For what it’s worth, I think it’s clear that Jimmy Page, for all his talents, crossed the line on more than one occasion, and that he profited handsomely by borrowing uncredited ideas from artists who died poor and neglected.) Writers frequently steal from one another, just as they cull images and stories from the world around them, and in most cases, it’s all part of the process of bricolage, the endless gleaning of material that occupies much of an author’s time. Creativity, as I’ve said frequently before, is about combinations, and artistic genius often has more to do with finding unexpected connections between existing components than inventing something new altogether, although the two often go hand in hand. Shakespeare, for one, was a master of uniting disparate stories gleaned from his wide reading into a surprising whole, and a play like The Merchant of Venice is practically a collage of appropriated material, assembled into a strange new animal by juxtaposition and the animating force of the playwright’s imagination.

We see the same principle at work today, perhaps more so than ever, given the range of potential sources that artists have at their disposal. Years ago, I read a critic—I can’t remember who—who argued that Quentin Tarantino’s truest precursor was Joseph Cornell, and while it’s hard to imagine two less similar temperaments, the comparison is a clever one. Tarantino is our most inspired collagist, and like Cornell, his combinations are an expression of a peculiar view of life. For Cornell, it was about finding beauty while excavating and combining the most unlikely of objects, and for Tarantino, it’s both a kind of cultural salvage mission and a metaphor for how he sees the world. Tarantino’s films are loaded with coincidences, cruel ironies, and tricks that the universe plays on its characters, all of which are just another word for fate. That sense of multiple protagonists jostling one another for room, and of one plot segueing abruptly into another before the previous story has had time to conclude, is inseparable from his view of filmmaking as a pileup of influences, and it’s hard to see which tendency came first. The result may seem chaotic, but it’s all of a piece, and that sense of a larger vision behind it is a big part of what separates Tarantino from his imitators.

"Ezekiel is among the exiles in Babylon..."

I’ve always approached The Icon Thief and its sequels as collages, with their elements thrown together as coherently as I can manage, and sometimes the sources show. In City of Exiles, for instance, there’s a major plot thread in which a female FBI agent consults a prisoner for help in tracking down another killer, and as at least one reviewer has pointed out, this sounds a lot like The Silence of the Lambs. I was fully aware of the parallels as I was writing it, as well as of the fact that a law enforcement officer turning to an imprisoned criminal for insight has become a cliché of its own. And no surprise: it’s a nifty little device, and like many tropes that thrive over time, it’s a way of injecting a touch of suspense into scenes of exposition. (Much of the last season of Hannibal has been devoted to ringing as many variations on that theme as possible, and a lot of the fun comes from noticing how blatantly it refers to its own predecessors, including Jonathan Demme’s movie.) As with most things in fiction, familiar elements can work just fine if invigorated by context and specificity, and if I’ve done my job, the scenes between Wolfe and Ilya will work both as part of the story and as a nod to Harris. Or, as John Gardner speaks of an homage to Edgar Allan Poe in The Art of Fiction: “The reader both sees the image in his mind…and sees Poe grinning and waving from the wings.”

Still, if I was going to use this device at all, I wanted to combine it with something else, which is why Chapter 31 also includes the first major introduction of the theme of Ezekiel’s vision, a motif that will recur periodically until the end of the novel. I’m aware that some readers feel that this material seems tacked on, but in fact, it predates much of the plot: I’ve wanted to write a novel about the merkabah for years, and such elements as my interpretation of the tragedy at the Dyatlov Pass and the ultimate nature of Karvonen’s mission were designed as solutions to mysteries for which the vision would provide the clues. It also serves the immediate needs of the story by giving Wolfe a way into Ilya’s head. The one thing Wolfe and Ilya—who otherwise might be the least similar characters in the entire series—have in common is a fascination with scripture and its interpretation, even as they approach it from radically different directions, as a Mormon and a Russian Jew. As usual, when I created these characters, I had no idea that they’d end up spending so much time together, and if their backgrounds make for a nice fit, it’s because they both emerged from my own interest in how we read texts, religious and otherwise. And when all your characters are aspects of yourself, they’ll often have surprising things to tell each other…

The one question, revisited

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Byzantine necklace

Yesterday, I quoted the architect Christopher Alexander on the one overriding question you can always ask when presented with two alternatives: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” It’s a test that can be used to make choices in life, art, and architecture, and in many ways, it’s the best and only question worth asking. At first glance, however, it seems to fly in the face of what I’ve said numerous times on this blog about the importance of objectivity and detachment. I’ve argued to the point of redundancy that art of all kinds has something of the quality that T.S. Eliot identified in poetry: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” David Mamet goes further: “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.” I suspect that Mamet—who often uses architectural metaphors when he writes about craft—would initially be a little suspicious of Alexander’s test, and that he’d say that the real question isn’t “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” but “Which of the two gets the job done?”

But if you were to ask me whether I believe Alexander or Mamet, my only answer would be: I believe in both. When Alexander asks us to look for a true picture of the self, he’s not speaking in autobiographical terms, or even about personality. (Hence the more depersonalized version of the same question: “Which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death?”) It’s more an issue of the deeper response an object evokes of naturalness, rightness, or life—which are all qualities that can be found in objects in which the self of the maker seems all but absent. You can think of it as the difference, say, between a personalized necklace from SkyMall and the Byzantine necklace pictured above: one of them seems to have more of me in it, but when I ask myself which one I’d prefer to become when I die, the answer is obvious. On a much higher level, it’s the difference between Shakespeare’s sonnets and something like Prospero’s speech to Ferdinand, which, as George Saintsbury points out, is placed in The Tempest almost arbitrarily. At first, the sonnets seem to have more of Shakespeare the man, but I don’t think there’s any question about which is the truer portrait.

SkyMall necklace

Poets, like Eliot, have always been at the leading edge of objectivity, and from Homer onward, the greatest poetry has been that in which the authorial “I” never appears but is somehow everywhere. In Zen in English Classics and Oriental Literature—which, like Alexander’s A Pattern Language, is one of the two or three essential books in my life—R.H. Blyth provides a useful list of examples of objective and subjective poetry, the latter of which he calls “a chamber of horrors.” On the objective side, we have:

A certain monk asked Hyakujo, “What is Truth?”
Hyakujo said, “Here I sit on Daiyu Peak!”

And on the subjective side, a passage from Yeats:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Comparisons, as John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, are odious but instructive, and it’s hard not to read these two passages and conclude that the first not only has more of Hyakujo in it, but more of Yeats.

In fact, you could even say that the essence of art lies in finding objective, impersonal images that also serve as a picture of the self. If that sounds paradoxical, that’s because it is, and it goes a considerable way toward explaining why real art is so elusive. It’s a simple matter to write subjectively, acting as if your own thoughts and feelings were the only important thing in the world; it’s less simple, but still straightforward, to construct objective, technically considered works in which the self never appears; and it’s hardest of all to write, as Wordsworth did: “A violet by a mossy stone.” And the test has wider applications than in poetry. In software design, we’re hardly asking programmers to write code to serve as a self-portrait in letters: we’re happy enough if it runs smoothly and does the job it was meant to do. Yet I feel that if you were to show a good programmer two blocks of code and ask him to pick which one seemed like a better picture of himself, we’d get a meaningful answer. It wouldn’t have anything to do with personal expression, but with such apparent intangibles as concision, elegance, ingenuity, and clarity. It’s really a way of asking us to think intuitively about what matters, when the external trappings have been stripped away. And the answers can, and should, surprise us.

“Ilya kept an eye on the building…”

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"Ilya kept an eye on the building..."

Note: This post is the sixteenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 15. You can read the earlier installments here.)

If you ever happen to walk past 58 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn, you’ll see what looks at first like an ordinary Greek Revival townhouse, painted to blend in with the buildings on either side. When you study it more closely, however, you’ll see that the windows are blacked out, and if you try the front door, it appears that there’s nobody home. In fact, the entire house is a fake—it’s a combination elevator and ventilation shaft for the subway, disguised as an ordinary brownstone. (You’ll see similar structures in London and Paris, the latter of which Umberto Eco discusses at length in Foucault’s Pendulum, which is where I first encountered the concept.) These vents exist solely for a utilitarian purpose, but for the sake of the neighborhood, they’ve been constructed to pass at first glance for buildings like any other. And although these hidden entrances to the underworld are fascinating in themselves, I’ve also come to think of them as an analogy for a certain kind of writing, which is equally concerned with keeping the ductwork of the story safely out of sight.

It’s possible, if you like, to think of the chapters in a novel as a series of houses lined up on a city street. Each one may be very different on the inside, and their exteriors have small peculiarities of design that are visible to a practiced eye, but for the most part, they have the same general size, shape, and proportions. Still, the initial impression can be misleading. Some chapters are intended as important edifices in their own right, or as places where the reader can move in and linger for a time; others are there purely to fill a functional role in the story, to prop up a plot point or relieve narrative pressure from the novel’s depths. (I don’t think it’s an accident that television writers refer to expository scenes or dialogue as “laying pipe.”) The trick, of course, is to make each chapter seem like an important destination in itself, even if it’s really there for structural or practical reasons. And one of the less glamorous parts of writing a novel consists of detailing and furnishing these interstitial chapters so the reader will think of them as something besides mere infrastructure—or, even better, not think of them at all.

"From somewhere to his left came a scream..."

In practice, these chapters can give a writer more trouble than any other. A scene that is inherently dramatic only asks the author to fully realize its potential; one that exists solely to get the characters from one place to another has to be dressed with just as much care, if not more. The best solution, obviously, is to cut this kind of transitional material whenever you can, but that isn’t always an option. In that case, the writer needs to tackle the scene as if it were crucially important on its own terms, as John Gardner notes in The Art of Fiction:

The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. When he’s working on the description of Uncle Fyodor’s store, he does not think about the hold-up men who in a moment will enter it, though he keeps them in the back of his mind. He describes the store, patiently, making it come alive, infusing every smell with Uncle Fyodor’s emotion and personality (his fear of hold-up men, perhaps); he works on the store as if this were simply an exercise, writing as if he had all eternity to finish it, and when the description is perfect—and not too long or short in relation to its function in the story as a whole—he moves on to his story’s next unit.

Chapter 15 of City of Exiles provides a good example of a chapter that exists primarily for structural reasons, although I’d like to think this isn’t immediately apparent. It’s here mostly to serve as a bridge between two sequences: Ilya has obtained information about Karvonen’s next target, but before I can bring him to the following stage, I need to give the reader a sense of his plans and action in the meantime. (I also need to set up the next chapter, in which Ilya visits the bookstore that Wolfe and Asthana have been watching.) The scene itself is a quiet one, with Ilya staking out the office building where the target is likely to appear, but if I cut it, the crucial string of chapters that follow will seem undermotivated. I did what I could, then, to at least make it readable: I used the structure of the stakeout itself to give it a clear shape, invested it with as much incidental detail—most of it gathered on location—as I could manage, and tried to give Ilya some interesting things to think about. Whether or not the reader notices any of this is beside the point; my only real goal is to keep the momentum going for a few pages, convey the information that the story requires, and move on. In the end, if nothing else, the pipes have been laid. And they’re about to take us to much more interesting places…

Written by nevalalee

January 30, 2014 at 9:50 am

A writer’s vocabulary

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The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary

A few days ago, I took an online quiz designed to test your vocabulary. You start by ticking off a list of words of varying difficulty whose definitions you think you know, from “midget” to “inveigle,” and then work your way through a series of more exotic creatures: “tenebrous,” “portmanteau,” “embonpoint,” “terpsichorean.” (Note that the entire test is conducted according to the honor system, and there’s no way of verifying whether you only think you know what a word really means.) I ended up ranking somewhere in the ninetieth percentile, which is pretty good, but with the following caveats: 1. English is the only language I know well. 2. I studied Latin and Greek in college, and even though I’ve forgotten most of what I learned, it gives me a definite edge for words like “hypnopompic” and “uxoricide.” 3. I write for a living, which means that the English language is the equivalent of my professional vocabulary. When you factor in the technical terms and phrases acquired in the course of learning any complicated trade, the working language of a doctor or engineer is probably just as large, and arguably more useful.

In fact, for most writers, a large vocabulary can be as much of a hindrance as a help. For every author like Cormac McCarthy, who rightly takes enormous pleasure in digging up obscure, vivid, evocative words, there are a dozen others who would be better off restricting themselves to the words on the first page of that test. A writer who sprinkles the page with the likes of “terpsichorean” had better have a sensational ear; otherwise, it’s a mark of frigidity, of showing off in tangential ways at the expense of the flow of the narrative. Which doesn’t imply that a writer doesn’t need an extensive vocabulary, or that he needs to avoid words that might send readers to a dictionary—it only means that he needs to exercise discretion and good taste when it comes to bringing it into play. And it’s impossible to make those kinds of judgment calls without an extensive storehouse of uncommon words at your disposal, which allows you to drill down into the nether regions of the language on the few occasions when it’s really necessary. For a writer, having a big vocabulary is a little like knowing karate: you learn it so that you’ll never need to use it.

Illustration from the Golden Book Animal Dictionary

So what words does a writer need to know? Nouns and verbs, above all, and particularly the proper names of everyday objects: furniture, clothing, architectural elements, plants and trees, body parts, modes of transport, and whatever technical vocabulary the story requires. For a thriller writer, this means the routine jargon of law enforcement and forensics; in fantasy, the names of weapons and armor; in science fiction, the language of physics, biology, and any number of other fields, used only when necessary to clarify the action. In practice, I find myself consulting the dictionary less often than reference works like The Ultimate Visual Dictionary; The English Duden, with its lovingly detailed and annotated illustrations of everything from factory floors to barbershops; and The AIA Guide to New York City and other locations, a wonderful source of descriptive material for real places and buildings. Again, though, the point isn’t to interrupt the narrative for a lengthy digression on architecture, but to know that the information is there, available if you need it, even while it remains safely in the background in the meantime.

In general, however, the only real solution is to read and write endlessly, and to treat words both as valuable possessions in their own right and as means to a larger view of the world. John Gardner’s advice here, which is brilliant, is to go page by page through the dictionary, making a list of all the common words that you don’t use on a regular basis, which not only extends your lexical range but broadens the universe of actions and situations that you can readily describe. I’ve never gone quite as far as this—like most writers, I actively add words to my vocabulary only according to the demands of a particular project—but I probably should. A big vocabulary is useful to the extent that it encourages you to see things, both in the world around you and your own imagination, that only become visible once you know their names. And this implies that in the long run, the best way to expand your vocabulary is to broaden the range of written experiences you’re trying to evoke. Whenever you write about a subject or way of life you haven’t explored before, you’ll find yourself seeking out the words that the action itself demands—and once you’ve acquired the words you need to tell the story you have in mind, they become a part of you forever.

Written by nevalalee

January 16, 2014 at 9:27 am


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