Learning from Didion

He said: the sky was this pink no painter could approximate, one of the detonation theorist used to try, a pretty fair Sunday painter, he never got it.

Democracy by Joan Didion

Democracy is about many things, but one of them is the testing of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific. I recommend the novel. Here are some quick thoughts about this sentence from Didion’s book.

  • The comma splices rush readers to the phrase “he never got it.” Why? Where in your writing might you use this technique of moving readers toward a phrase quickly? Which phrase?
  • This sentence characterizes the “he” who said it. One of the things he remembers from the nuclear testing is this painter’s efforts. It is an interesting enough memory for this character that he brings it back up, and that tells readers about him. But this sentence also characterizes the detonation theorist who paints. The response of the theorist to his own work is to try and capture the results of it (particles raised by the tests change the color of the sky). One sentence characterizes the person who said it and the person the sentence is about.
  • “Detonation theorist,” at least for me, provides an interesting contrast with the rest of the sentence and the setting around it. The specifics associated with painting might be well known to readers (brushes and paint, canvas or houses), but fewer specifics are obviously associated with the work of a detonation theorist. What professions can contrast with hobbies or other activities? “Psychiatrist” and “serial killer” is one example Harris has used. These contrasts can provide an initial kernel of characterization.
  • This sentence also demonstrates the possibility of quickly capturing big, philosophical questions. An entire manuscript isn’t necessary to ask about how humans respond to preparing for war or coping with, perhaps, difficult employment. The question can be raised quickly, though resolving or exploring it takes more time.

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