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Inner Life and the Exterior World

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David Corbett for Writer Unboxed

“Our real self is not entirely inside of us.” —Jean-Jacques Rousseau

It’s a truism of our peculiar art that we are obliged, as much as possible, to make every element of a story—every chapter, every section, every scene, every paragraph, every sentence, every word—serve multiple purposes, while at the same time making that effort as invisible as possible.

One area where this is especially true is description of setting. Although our first effort at describing our story world may likely resemble straightforward reportage, in our revisions we would be wise to ask: In whose mind’s eye exactly is this scene unfolding? What does her account of the scene tell us about her?

Description in fiction cannot be separated from point of view, even in its most objective, omniscient variations. (A common misconception concerning omniscient point of view is that it lacks a narrative perspective; not true—that perspective is revealed through the omniscient narrator’s voice.)

This link between description and point of view means that physical details never merely convey information about the exterior world; they also cannot help but tell us something about the perspective—psychological, moral, emotional—forming the impressions being recounted.

This point got driven home for me recently when I picked up Exteriors by our most recent Nobel Laureate, Annie Ernaux. The book was prompted by her move from a series of provincial towns steeped in history to a new modern city “suddenly sprung up from nowhere.”


She felt “seized with a feeling of strangeness…continually hovering in some no man’s land halfway between the earth and the sky. My gaze resembled the glass surfaces of office towers, reflecting no one, just the high-rise towers and the clouds.”

As she emerged from this “state of schizophrenia,” she became increasingly absorbed in her new surroundings. “And so this journal of exteriors was born…a series of snapshots reflecting the daily routine of a community.”

The analogy to photography wasn’t casual: “I have done my best not to explain or express the emotion that triggered each text. On the contrary, I have sought to describe reality as though through the eyes of a photographer and to preserve the mystery and the opacity of the lives I encountered.”

But then comes the inescapable admission: “In actual fact, I realize that I have put a lot of myself into these texts, far more than originally planned.”

To which I can’t help but reply: How could she not?

A photographer’s image doesn’t simply spring up before her camera’s lens. She selects it. Often the photographs she ends up sharing are the one or two kept from dozens even hundreds of others that failed to capture that ineffable quality, “the mystery and the opacity,” of her subjects.

In the text of Exteriors, Ms. Ernaux makes this point in two different places.

In the first, she remarks, “I realize that I am forever combing reality for literature.”

The second comes at the end of one of her “snapshots:”

Saint-Lazare Station, on a Saturday: a couple are waiting in line for a taxi. She looks lost and leans on him for support. He keeps repeating: “You’ll see when I’m dead.” Then: “I want to be burned, you know; I want to be burned from head to toe. I don’t want to go into that thing. It’s horrible, that thing.” He clutches her to his chest; she is panicked.

I am visited by people and their lives—like a whore.

Those of you who remember my post about fascination versus explanation is portraying our characters may remember a similar remark by Virginia Woolf:

Here is a character imposing itself upon another person. Here is Mrs. Brown making someone almost automatically begin writing a novel about her. I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite.

Which provides us with our segue for exploring some fictional examples to see how this view of the exterior world works in the context of story.

World-building, as we have come to call it, is especially important in sci-fi, fantasy, dystopian fiction, and any novel taking place in a time or place unfamiliar to most readers.

The need to convey this utterly foreign world so it’s vivid to the reader unfortunately can at times overwhelm the skill of the writer, who then turns to pure narrative description, detailing “one damn thing after another” to paint the scene.

China Miéville, in his masterful Perdido Street Station, begins revealing his utterly bizarre story world by placing his narrator in the same spot as the reader—seeing it for the first time:

Veldt to scrub to fields to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth. It has been night for a long time. The hovels that encrust the river’s edge have grown like mushrooms around me in the dark.

We rock. We pitch in a deep current.

Behind me the man tugs uneasily at his rudder and the barge corrects. Light lurches as the lantern swings. The man is afraid of me. I lean out from the prow of the small vessel across the darkly moving water.

Consider what would be sacrificed if the narrator made no mention of himself and simply described the scene. The mood of oppressive strangeness and eerie menace might remain—the language alone would do the work—but those effects become far more tangible with our knowing that that language belongs to a specific person, that he (like us) is seeing this landscape for the first time, and there is palpable tension between him and the boatmen bringing him to this new place.

Kate Atkinson uses a similar technique in her opening to One Good Turn. Here the point-of-view character, like the reader, is seeing the landscape for the first time, but with a particular twist:

He was lost. He wasn’t used to being lost. He was the kind of man who drew up plans and executed them efficiently, but now everything was conspiring against him in ways he decided he couldn’t have foreseen. He had been stuck in a jam on the A1 for two mind-numbing hours so that it was already past the middle of the morning when he arrived in Edinburgh…It had been raining, steadily and unforgivingly, on the drive north and had only begun to ease off as he hit the outskirts of town. The rain had in no way deterred the crowds—it had never occurred to him that Edinburgh was in the middle of the festival and that there would be carnival hoards of people milling around as if the end of a war had just been declared. The closest he had previously got to the Edinburgh Festival was when he accidentally turned on Late Night Review and saw a bunch of middle-class wankers discussing some pretentious piece of fringe theater.

He ended up in the dirty heart of the city, on a street that somehow seemed to be on a lower level than the rest of the town, a blackened urban ravine…A queue snaked the length of the street—people waiting to get into what looked like a bomb hole in the wall but which announced itself as FRINGE VENUE 164 on a large placard outside the door. 

The name on the driver’s license in his wallet was Paul Bradley. “Paul Bradley” was a nicely forgettable name. He was several degrees of separation from his real name now, a name that no longer felt as if it had ever belonged to him.

The author could have easily just presented the scene in straightforward narration, but notice how much more vivid it becomes in the eyes of the character whose clearly anxious as he tries to find his way—and how powerful it becomes when we learn why he’s not the kind of man used to being lost. He has a secret; shortly we’ll learn he’s a hitman on a job.

Lawrence Osborn in On Java Road narrates his tale of Hong Kong during the violent 2019 protests through the eyes of a reporter named Adrian Gyle, known to the people of Hong Kong “as a writer of something or other, and a fairly infamous glutton, but little more than that…I was an excellent nonentity.” After conveying this personal background and an account of how he spends his days, Adrian recounts the following:

The heat rose and by midday the inhabitants of the city bore it with raised newspapers and parasols. They were glum and stoic in their minimal clothes, and I wandered down to the ferry terminal behind the Vic Hotel just to soak up the coolness of the ocean. From there, the interval of ordinariness was impressive in its potency. The junks with their mulberry sails, the lights of the Kerry Hotel across the water coming on at dusk, the ferries packed with miserable perspirers bearing fans, and the edges of the mountains a color of old tea at the end of daylight. It was around this time that bodies had begun to appear in those same waters, quietly retrieved by police boats that reporters were not permitted to approach, the first intimations of a new form of intimidation, a new configuration of the chessboard.

Notice how easily he glides from a ‘potent ordinariness’ described with a fond familiarity, complete with raised newspapers and parasols in the stifling heat, to the discovery of bodies in the water—the bodies of student protestors the authorities have arrested, tortured, and murdered to intimidate the others. The chessboard’s configuration is indeed changing, and that abstract way of putting it tells us something about Adrian—he is an observer, not a participant, and he s beginning to realize his life in Hong Kong is coming to its end. (I doubt it will surprise anyone to learn the bodies in the water also serve as foreshadowing of things to come.)

Adrian McKinty’s The Cold Cold Ground, set hallway around the world, opens with this:

The riot had taken on a beauty of its own. Arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon. Crimson tracer in mystical parabolas. Phosphorescence from the barrels of plastic bullet guns. A distant yelling like that of men below decks in a torpedoed prison ship. The scarlet shoosh of Molotovs intersecting with exacting surfaces. Helicopters everywhere: their spotlights finding one another like lovers in the Afterlife.

And all this through a lens of oleaginous Belfast rain.

I watched with the others by the Land Rover on Knockagh Mountain. No one spoke. Words were inadequate. You needed a Picasso for this scene, not a poet.

And yet, what if not poetry describes the language of this opening? Is the author being cheeky?

No. A short time later we find that the narrator’s command of language has much to do with the fact he is the only one of the police officers who’s been to university. He’s also the only Catholic—a fact that emerges as the officers remark on the somewhat disappointing aspect of the scene. The riots a week earlier following the death of Bobby Sands had been far more impressive. This disturbance is in the wake of the second hunger striker to die, Frankie Hughes, and he lacked Bobby’s saintly appearance and biography—“Frankie enjoyed killing and was very good at it.” He also had the misfortune of dying on the same day someone tried to assassinate the Pope. We learn all this as a kind of prickly, mocking tension arises between the narrator and his fellow officers, all Protestant members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. (Note again how Miéville used a similar tension in his opening to Perdido Street Station.)

These examples show how the description of the outer world can be used, at the same time, to reveal something significant about the point-of-view character surveying the scene. Sometimes that effort is even more conspicuous, as in this section from Quartet by Jean Rhys:

From the balcony Marya could see one side of the Place Blanche. Opposite, the Rue Lepic mounted upwards to the rustic heights of Montmarte. It was astonishing how significant, coherent, and understandable it all became after a glass of wine on an empty stomach.

The lights winking up at a pallid moon, the slender painted ladies, the wings of the Moulin Rouge, the smell of petrol and perfume and cooking.

The Place Blanche, Paris, Life itself. One realized all sorts of things. The value of an illusion, for instance, and that the shadow can be more important than the substance. All sorts of things.

Here the point of the description isn’t so much to paint a picture of what the character sees as to provide an oblique means to convey the state of her life—she is a young Englishwoman of modest means living in Paris, married to a man who treats her kindly but disappears for days, even weeks at a time with no word. She suspects he’s connected to the underworld, but dares not ask—thus, the value of an illusion. Without mentioning the word, her loneliness comes through loud and clear, revealed through what she sees and what feelings spontaneously arise.

Finally, sometimes the landscape doesn’t just reflect the inner world of the narrating character, it stares back, as in this opening from Denis Johnson’s Angels:

In the Oakland Greyhound all the people were dwarfs, and they pushed and shoved to get on the bus, even cutting in front of the two nuns, who were there first. The two nuns smiled sweetly at Miranda and Baby Ellen and played I-see-you behind their fingers when they’d taken their seats. But Jamie could sense that they found her make-up too thick, her pants too tight. They knew she was leaving her husband, and figured she’d turn for a living to whoring. She wanted to tell them what was what, but you can’t talk to a Catholic.

Notice how Johnson uses the nuns as a mirror to reveal a physical description of the narrator herself—not much, but enough, given the distinctive voice, to create a distinct impression.

If you’re noticing a similarity in between some of these examples and those that Don Maass presented in his post last week concerning immersive or deep point of view (“The Dilemma of Narrative Distance”), treat yourself to a cookie.

And there’s an interesting similarity between his examples and the ones I’ve just provided—they’re strongest when the interior, personal perspective whips into focus at the last line, bringing us vividly back from exterior events into the mind of the POV character.

The “mysterious opacity” of the outer world can serve as a mirror, and thus is never really “out there.” It reflects the mind of the observer, and can serve as a “two-fer,” conveying information not just about what is being described but about who is providing the details.

What are your favorite examples of description used to explore not just the outer world of the story but the inner world of one of the characters? How have you used description of a setting in your work to convey as well the mindset of the point-of-view character?


About David Corbett

David Corbett (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.

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