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.

Vonnegut’s tips

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Points of view are flexible

The main point of any point of view has to be not confusing readers; that’s so central it often goes without saying. In my efforts not to be confusing, however, I sometimes don’t allow myself to see some of the possible flexibility points of view provide. Crossing to Safety, for example, is clearly in first person, but consider these sentences:

“Who is this boy?” I can imagine her mother asking. “Do we know him? Do we know his family?”

Suppose they are sitting on Aunt Emily’s porch, looking down across waist-high ferns and raspberry bushes to the lake. It is a day of traveling clouds. The porch is a sheltered pocket, though the wind is strong enough to scrape limbs across the roof.

Almost without exception, the next thirty-four pages are the first-person narrator providing readers with details of the inner lives of other characters. The narrator does remind readers periodically that he is imagining these inner lives. Contrasts between the narrator’s suppositions and the actual inner lives of characters (as they might have been revealed by dialogue) aren’t obvious.

The next time I write in first person, I’ll use this sort of narrator.

(What’s a good name for it, by the way? Not omniscient, because the narrator doesn’t really claim to know those inner lives. Unreliable doesn’t seem quiet right, either.)