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A Great Damp Loaf of Description - Experiments in Fictional Imagery


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Prepared for appropriate frustration and tapped out fingers?

Using our favorite "stand on the shoulders of the classics" approach, we're going to examine the role of detailed character description when it comes to enhancing prose narrative. We've touched on this previously with our High Impact Narrative article and a caboose of Enhancement via Nabokov, but we're not done yet. Let's look at various examples and techniques.

A GREAT DAMP LOAF 

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From Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News": 
  • "A great damp loaf of a body. At six he weighed eighty pounds. At sixteen he was buried under a casement of flesh. Head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the color of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face."
Note that Proulx first makes a single statement of character impression before moving on to details, i.e., "A great damp loaf of a body." Note also, "shaped like a crenshaw." Consider your setting and choose an aspect of it to create a comparison to your own character. If your character lived in a desert town you might say, "his face unshaved for days, rough as prickly cactus."
  • "Ed Punch talked out of the middle of his mouth. While he talked he examined Quoyle, noticed the cheap tweed jacket the size of a horse blanket, fingernails that looked regularly held to a grind stone. He smelled submission in Quoyle, guessed he was butter of fair spreading consistency."
Consider and sketch a few metaphors to physically describe a unique character you've created. If you don't have one, perhaps you should get one ASAP? In any case, the more interesting the appearance, the easier your job. Begin with a single statement of impression and include simile or metaphor based on your novel's unique setting (is it sufficiently unique?). Note the above is third person POV.

WATCHING THE MOUTH WITH ITALO  

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From Italo Calvino's "Under the Jaguar Sun":

  • "Right in the midst of chewing, Olivia's lips paused, almost stopped, though without completely interrupting their continuity of movement, which slowed down, as if reluctant to allow an inner echo to fade, while her gaze became fixed, intent on no specific object, in apparent alarm. Her face had a special concentration that I had observed during meals ever since we began our trip to Mexico. I followed the tension as it moved from her lips to her nostrils, flaring one moment, contracting the next, (the plasticity of the nose is quite limited -- especially for a delicate, harmonious nose like Olivia's -- and each barely perceptible attempt to expand the capacity of the nostrils in the longitudinal direction actually makes them thinner, while the corresponding reflex movement, accentuating their breadth, then seems a kind of withdrawal of the whole nose into the surface of the face)."
"Right in the midst of chewing..." The character is engaged in an action. Focus on one physical attribute, then another. "As though" what? Consider, she or he, looks "as though" or "as if"? Where are the eyes? What are they doing? Is the face twitching, moving? How? And now, time to unleash the PDQ here at WE. Look it over carefully. This is a brainstorming tool for description in prose narrative - ideal onion peeler.

Apply at least five PDQ questions to your character's face. Note the questions and include the responses. Take your time and think about it carefully... Note the example above is first person POV. 


UPDIKE'S MOTHER IS ANGRY 

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(from John Updike's "The Centaur")
  • "A glance at my mother's mottled throat told me she was angry. Suddenly I wanted to get out: she had injected into the confusion a shrill heat that made everything cling. I rarely knew exactly why she was mad; it would come and go like weather. Was it really that my father and grandfather absurdly debating sounded to her like murder? Was it something I had done, my arrogant slowness? Anxious to exempt myself from her rage, I sat down in my stiff peat jacket and tried the coffee again. It was still too hot. A sip seared my sense of taste away."
Now describe a character who is familiar to you, like a family member, and depict them in a charged emotional state. Also, add at least one rumination like Updike did above, i.e., "Was it something I had done, my arrogant slowness?"

CHABON AND NEFF'S HUNSECKER LOOKS PACINO 

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From Michael Neff's "All the Dark We Will Not See"

  • "First of all, Mr. Basil R. Hunsecker acted and looked the stereotypical bad boss: a middle-aged prick in three-piece gray and tacky pink tie who disturbingly resembled Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon (narrow head and brooding Italian look), only an older version, with a thinner face, pock-marked cheeks, and big, protruding, blue-bone eyes that sucked in everything and contrasted in an irritating way with his sallow brown skin—as if he were the victim of one too many spray tans. His odor, somewhat unique, like cooked shellfish marinated in mildew. What Manny didn‘t know was that Hunsecker remained the owner not only of a rare, painful, and mummifying disease that ate away the body fat between his skin and muscles, but also of more than one post-pubescent social trauma, his memory way to full of punky kids screeching at him: Hey, pizzaaa face, you fucking shithead pizzaaa face!"

 

From Michael Chabon's "Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay"

  • "Then a hand as massive and hard as an elk's horn, lashed by tough sinews to an arm like the limb of an oak, grabs the boy by the shoulder and drags him back to the wings... "You know better, young man," says the giant, well over eight feet tall, to whom the massive hand belongs. He has the brow of an ape and the posture of a bear and the accent of a Viennese professor of medicine. He can rip open a steel drum like a can of tobacco, lift a train carriage by one corner, play the violin like Paganini, and calculate the velocity of asteroids and comets, one of which bears his name."
Apply the techniques and lengthy description of Neff and Chabon to describe a unique or outrageous individual of your own creation. Be bold and imaginative with your strokes. Use metaphor, simile, the wallop of a single first impression. Feel free to make the character move and speak if you wish. Be aggressive and prototype your sketch first. 

Now, are you on your way to becoming a masterful prose stylist? Perhaps, but this is just the beginning.

 

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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