Sunday, January 7, 2007

Imagery in writing

The prince who presided over Prussia (a German state) during and after The Seven Years War in the eighteenth century was a man who called himself Friedrich II, although others called him Frederick the Great. What made him so great was not so much that he was warlike, although he was that. What made him great was his understanding of politics. After all, we have some extraordinarily incompetent politicians in this country and whatever they are, they are not great.

Voltaire entered into a correspondence with Freddy, and he said one of the insights – commonplace today, but insightful then – that made him the great ruler that he was is that “money is the basis of all power.” In other words, forget about votes, or even swords. If you want to rule what you need is cash.

Having said that, consider how Fred’s language compares with the following from the seventeenth century English playwright Ben Jonson. The following snippet is from The Alchemist, which was first performed on stage in 1610:

Withal, to be of power
To pay an Army in the field, to buy
The King of France out of his Realms, or Spain
Out of his Indies. What can you not do
Against Lords spiritual or temporal,
That shall oppose you?

Now maybe I am a Philistine where good literature is concerned, but that just plain grabs me in a way that a bald statement such as “money is the basis of all power” does not. Yet they both say the same thing. Johnson was just gabbier than Freddie.

Or was he?

Here us another passage which is gabby and yet grabby in the sense that it grabs me. That is how we Philistines judge literature. It grabs or it does not. Non grabbing literature is to us Philistines inferior literature. The writer says:

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

I am not exactly sure what this writer is saying, but I am vaguely aware that lots of other writers have tried to say it – including Shakespeare – and yet that none of them have said it so well IMHO. A modern version of it emerged a few years ago in the maxim that “S**t happens!” But, let us be honest, the ancient guy got it better. A lot better.

So what did he do right? Well, it seems to this humble scrivener that the power is not really in the words but in the images that we are impelled to create in our minds as we parse the sentence. Consider Ben Jonson’s quote and you get the following images:

An army in the field
The King of France
The French King’s realms
The King of Spain
The Spanish King’s Indies

And, most intriguing of all,

“Lords spiritual or temporal” arrayed in opposition.

That is a lot of imagery for not very many words. I have never been able to read or hear the phrase “lords spiritual or temporal” without thinking of The Alchemist, just as most people cannot listen to The William Tell Overture without thinking about The Lone Ranger.

So, translating this to the world of novel writing, it seems to me (the humble scrivener) that your novel needs to conjure up images for your words to have real power. It also seems to the same aforementioned scrivener that the words used to conjure up said images should be few. I am thinking of Ian Fleming’s old novels about James Bond, in which he would spend page after page describing a meal until I was ready to use his book for kindling in my fireplace. Had it not been for a certain president who single-handedly almost bankrupted the hat industry by saying that he preferred not to wear a hat with a suit, Fleming’s books would be used for ballast in submarines and the movie series would never have happened. The great writers suggest to the reader what he or she should see in his or her mind’s eye. But they leave it to the reader to fill in the details. Using few words empowers the reader, which appears to be one reason these words have such power. People like to be empowered and readers are people.

Another thing the great writers seemingly do not do is fill their work with absurd and irritating similes of the sort Blatty used in his book The Exorcist. I won’t quote examples because I cannot stand the book, and I would have to re-read it to find them.

So why say it? Because some of the work people are cranking out seems to have great dialogue but no images. It is like some of the dreams I have in which I am in darkness and voices are saying great things but I cannot see the speakers. Robin Cook’s book Coma sold to Hollywood partly because it is visual, and movies are a visual medium. When you write your scenes can you see the characters? Can you see what they are doing? Can you describe it so I can see it as well? Do you want to grab the Philistines?

Just a thought.