Consider the phrase “in the shivering night.”
That’s a poetic phrase. Not because it’s pretty. It’s poetic because it’s elusive and ambiguous. It’s evocative. It raises questions.
It’s not literal, it’s figurative. Night doesn’t shiver. We shiver from fear or from cold. So is the night cold, making us shiver? Or does the night appear to shiver because we are dizzy or drugged or confused? Are the tears in our eyes making the stars go all blurry and shivery?
Or is the ground actually shaking? Is a freight train rumbling by, too far to hear but close enough to feel? Is a 4-point temblor passing beneath our feet?
Or is the night shivering because we are trembling within, full of our own apprehension about what is going to happen next?
The author doesn’t make an explicit choice between these various possibilities, he just says “in the shivering night.” He chooses to leave us hanging among the possibilities by using an ambiguous phrase, which, I’m sure, was also chosen to conflate in our subconscious minds with similar words such as “shimmer” and “silver.” The stars may be shimmering, but that word is too warm and too pretty. There’s no foreboding in the word “shimmer.” But “shiver” is packed with foreboding, bolstered by the sharp and dangerous edges of words like “sliver” and “splinter,” even “shiv.”
It’s a figure of speech. Approach with caution.
Figurative language can engage your reader on a deeper level. If the reader has to make her own determination, her own interpretation, then you’ve made the reader a participant. At least on a subconscious level, she is involved in the creative realization of your book.
Which is pretty awesome.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t strive for clarity. I’m not suggesting you abandon standard grammar or that you should be obscure for the sake of obscurity. But when you reduce your writing to a set of rules—never use the passive voice, avoid all adverbs, show don’t tell, stay away from similes and other figurative language—you’re settling. Don’t settle.
Sure. Learn to write clearly. But don’t deprive yourself of metaphors and adverbs. Of course you need the passive voice. Of course you need to tell and not show sometimes. Of course you should use metaphors and adverbs and metonymy and synecdoche. Play with alliteration, with puns and paradox and personification. Let your words be unclear sometimes. All of these things all tools, so learn to use them.
Plain-spoken? Nothing fancy? Like Cormac McCarthy, maybe? Yeah, I get that. That’s laudable. Consider this passage:
“Alone in the empty shell of a house the squatter watched through the moteblown glass a rimshard of bonecolored moon come cradling up over the black balsams on the ridge, ink trees a facile hand had sketched against the paler dark of winter heavens.”
You guessed. That’s from Child of God by Cormac McCarthy. Obviously the whole book isn’t like that. That would be unreadable. But such moments occur, and when they do, you stop. You may, if you’re like me, even go back and read them again.
Which is exactly what writing coaches and copy editors tell you should never happen! Never do anything to interrupt the flow of the narrative. Never give the reader a reason to stop reading, because he might not start again.
And there’s the crux of the problem. This prevalent mentality, that the reader’s attention is so fragile that you can’t risk testing it with anything that makes him pause or puzzle, comes directly from the notion that every reader is like that guy on the sofa, watching TV, remote controller in hand, and there’s no way to keep him from switching stations except for a constant barrage of visual excitement.
I don’t think we are all that guy. I think you can take your foot off the accelerator pedal every now and again.
All right, enough. Here endeth the lesson.
(Oh and while you’re at it, check out this from Susan Defreitas at Lit Reactor. It’ll be worth your while.)
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