Monday Motivation: A cowlick, an expression of eagerness and a crooked grin

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

Ann Patchett, in her new novel, The Dutch House, has her two primary characters, a brother and sister, meet for the first time a woman their widowed father has brought home. This is how the interloper is described at that first sighting:

“We had not yet been introduced to Andrea, who, from the back, looked small and neat in her belted dress, a dark hat no bigger than a saucer pinned over a twist of pale hair.”

Short and sharp, just a couple of details. Not all first encounters are as brief or impressionistic. Take this one, drawn from A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book:

“He took pleasure in the appearance of his visitor, who was dressed in dark slate-coloured grosgrain, trimmed with braid, with lace at the high neck and fashionably billowing sleeves above the elbow. Her hat was trimmed with black plumes and a profusion of scarlet silk poppies, nestling along the brim. She had a bold, pleasant face, high-coloured, eager, firm-mouthed, with side-set huge dark eyes, like the poppy-centres. She must have been, he judged, around thirty-five, more or less, probably more. He deduced that she was not in the habit of wearing such tight corsets, kid shoes and gloves. She moved a little too freely and impulsively. She had fine flesh, fine ankles. She probably wore Liberty gowns or rational dress, at home…”

My question is simply: which description works better? The first is just a twist, a suggestion, a report on the narrator’s first impression of the woman who, in Patchett’s novel, is destined to become his despised step-mother.

The second has a rather more old-fashioned heft to it. It can only be the result of a thorough scrutiny by the unnamed perspective character who examines the woman opposite him from head: that black-plumed hat; to foot: those fine ankles. He dwells on her face admiringly. He thinks of the corset constraining her torso. He imagines her out of it, at home, moving more freely.

Well, the second description gives us far more information, there’s no question about that. But that information comes, I’d suggest, at a cost.

Here’s my argument:

The success or failure of fiction (and non-fiction too, it must be said) is measured by the degree to which readers are able to sink themselves into the world that the writer has created, and populated with his creatures.

The writer makes that world accessible to us through the lived experience of one or more of its characters. Even if a novel is written in the omniscient third person, it relies at least intermittently on a close attachment to one or more of its characters.

But if you’ve written your story using the point of view we call third person attached, or third person limited, then the perspective you give your reader is very specifically the perspective of one or other of the characters. It’s their world that’s being described, using, more or less, their vocabulary, reflecting their sensibility, their values, their worldview.

Take that impressionist description in Patchett’s book. I certainly feel that what is conveyed is the narrator’s first, fleeting impression. It’s not a full description, because your first impressions are never hugely detailed. We don’t usually notice the colour of someone’s eyes on first encounter, or their fine ankle, or even the plumes on their hat (let alone their girdled midriffs).

For me, at least, A S Byatt’s description is a literary, a writerly one. And it’s also just a little creepy, to my modern sensibility.

A cow-lick, an expression of eagerness, a crooked grin – that’s enough to draw us into the world of the story. And, best of all, it leaves us to fill in the details, to participate in the building of the story and the imagining of the characters.

Happy writing,

Richard

Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Let the clues fall lightly

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