I’ve been preparing for Writing on the Dawn Treader, which starts two weeks from today, and I ran across a lovely sentence that I had never paid attention to before. It comes near the beginning of Chapter Five of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lucy is delighted to be back at sea after three weeks on the Lone Islands:
Lucy thought she was the most fortunate girl in the world, as she woke each morning to see the reflections of the sunlit water dancing on the ceiling of her cabin and looked round on all sides on all the nice new things she had got on the Lone Islands—seaboots and buskins and cloaks and jerkins and scarves.
I realize that nobody is going to make a graphic of this sentence and post it on Instagram. Nobody is going to turn it into a calligraphy piece to hang in their dorm room. I checked Goodreads, and of the nearly three hundred favorite quotations that readers posted from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, not one of them was the above sentence. There are a lot of tweetable sentences in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This isn’t one of them; and yet sentences like this one give shape to a fictional world where the quotable lines of wit and wisdom can find a dwelling place.
What’s so great about the sentence I quoted above? The thing that first caught my attention was the reflected sunlight dancing on the cabin ceiling. I’ve never been on an ocean-going ship, but I’ve seen enough movies and read enough books about sea voyages that I might be able to fake it if ever I were called upon to write a sea story. Winds would sing in the rigging, and there would be plenty of sea spray. I’d be sure to mention the bowsprit, and people would sing “Yo ho ho.” But in my sea story, sunlight reflecting off the surface of the water would not dance on the ceiling of the cabin, because that isn’t something I knew about before I read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. That trick of the light felt completely new to me, and yet when I read it, it made perfect sense. I immediately knew (or felt) something about the experience of sailing that I didn’t know before.
When you write, you’re looking to give your readers something they can’t get for themselves—or, in any case, something they haven’t gotten for themselves. That doesn’t mean you have to be smarter than everybody else or that you have to dream up things nobody has ever dreamt up before. The sunlight bouncing off the sea and onto the ceiling, I suspect, was simply a matter of CS Lewis paying attention—of noticing and remembering the way light looks in a ship’s cabin, then writing it down.
What are some little details that you have seen in the real world but have never seen mentioned in books or portrayed on television? Those are the details that are going to make your written world seem convincing. I know I’ve mentioned this before in a Tuesday letter, but it was years ago, so I’ll mention it again: In one of my creative writing classes, a woman wrote a memory of being a little girl and watching her father, a preacher, making copies in the church office and softly cussing the mimeograph machine. A preacher cussing at a mimeograph machine: that’s the kind of thing you can’t make up. The most reliable form of originality comes from those little details that you have seen that nobody else has seen—or, just as significantly, that nobody else has remembered. That’s how you give readers what they can’t get for themselves.
So much for the front end of CS Lewis’s sentence. The back end is just a list—”seaboots and buskins and cloaks and jerkins and scarves.” Anybody who has taken one of my creative writing courses knows ho much I love lists of concrete nouns. The whole world is just a bunch of nouns verbing one another. So a list is an easy way to make a written world feel a little more like the lived world.
I want to point out two things about that list. First, of the five items in the list, I’m not entirely sure what two of them are…well, I’m sure now, but only because I looked them up. But I don’t care. I knew that all the things in that list were articles of clothing associated with sea adventures and the Age of Exploration. The sense of ocean-going sartorial abundance was not at all diminished by the fact that I was a little vague on the difference between a buskin and jerkin.
Secondly, I want to point out that a specific list that goes longer than about three items, even though it is finite, usually feels bigger and more abundant than a phrase that is more comprehensive by being more general. This side-by-side comparison illustrates what I mean:
|What CS Lewis might have written:|
[Lucy] looked round on all sides on all the nice new things she had got on the Lone Islands—every kind of archaic seafaring garment you can think of.
|What CS Lewis did write:|
[Lucy] looked round on all sides on all the nice new things she had got on the Lone Islands—seaboots and buskins and cloaks and jerkins and scarves.
Theoretically, “every kind of archaic seafaring garment you can think of” is a larger and more comprehensive set of objects than “seaboots and buskins and cloaks and jerkins and scarves.” Those five items fit within the larger category, but they are just the start of the seafaring garments I can think of. I can think of puffy pirate shirts, various kinds of hat, piratey jewelry, eye patches… But even though I know with my brain that the category “archaic seafaring garment” is larger than the five items in Lewis’s list, it feels more like real world abundance when the writer presents to my mind’s eye a parade—even a short parade—of concrete items: look at these seaboots, look at these buskins, look at these capes, these jerkins, these scarves…
So there are two tricks for making descriptions take on more of the textures of real life:
- Pay attention to (and write down) little details from real life that you haven’t seen in books, and
- Take every opportunity to insert lists of concrete nouns in your writing.
You don’t have to be a genius to do either of those things well.