“I could probably go on at length regarding the many ways he changed the face of fantasy, at least for me, but today I’ll try to pick just one. Robert Jordan taught me how to describe a cup of water.
It seems a simple task. We all know what water looks like, feels like in our mouth. Water is ubiquitous. Describing a cup of water feels a little like doing a still life painting. As a child I used to wonder: Why do people spend so much time painting bowls of fruit, when they could be painting dragons? Why learn to describe a cup of water, when the story is about cool magic and (well) dragons?
It’s a thing I had trouble with as a teenage writer—I’d try to rush through the “boring” parts to get to the interesting parts, instead of learning how to make the boring parts into the interesting parts. And a cup of water is vital to this. Robert Jordan showed me that a cup of water can be a cultural dividing line–the difference between someone who grew up between two rivers, and someone who’d never seen a river before a few weeks ago.
A cup of water can be an offhand show of wealth, in the shape of an ornamented cup. It can be a mark of travelling hard, with nothing better to drink. It can be a symbol of better times, when you had something clean and pure. A cup of water isn’t just a cup of water, it’s a means of expressing character. Because stories aren’t about cups of water, or even magic and dragons. They’re about the people painted, illuminated, and changed by magic and dragons.”
I agree with Sanderson’s assertion. It makes sense. But at the same time—in typical human fashion—I agree with a seemingly contradictory idea; Hemingway’s Iceberg. Quoted from John McPhee’s Writing by Omission:
“And inevitably we have come to Ernest Hemingway and the tip of the iceberg—or, how to fashion critical theory from one of the world’s most venerable clichés. “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” The two sentences are from “Death in the Afternoon,” a nonfiction book (1932). They apply as readily to fiction. Hemingway sometimes called the concept the Theory of Omission. In 1958, in an “Art of Fiction” interview for The Paris Review, he said to George Plimpton, “Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.” To illustrate, he said, “I’ve seen the marlin mate and know about that. So I leave that out. I’ve seen a school (or pod) of more than fifty sperm whales in that same stretch of water and once harpooned one nearly sixty feet in length and lost him. So I left that out. All the stories I know from the fishing village I leave out. But the knowledge is what makes the underwater part of the iceberg.”
In other words:
There are known knowns—there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
The above models—Sanderson’s concrete versus abstract prose, and Hemingway’s empty versus full prose—seem contradictory. But they actual complement one another. Consider the following.
“Swann had prepared himself for every possibility. Reality must therefore be something that bears no relation to possibilities, any more than the stab of a knife in one’s body bears to the gradual movement of the clouds overhead, since those words, “two or three times,” carved as it were a cross upon the living tissues of his heart. Strange indeed that those words, “two or three times,” nothing more than words, words uttered in the air, at a distance, could so lacerate a man’s heart, as if they had actually pierced it, could make a man ill, like a poison he has drunk.”
Frog jumps in
Finally, the upper-left quadrant is where Language Proper exists. It is the kingdom of single words with a multiplicity of meanings. “Love”, “Hate”, “Joy”, “Suffering”. Words that are pregnant with possible implication.
Writing is a difficult enough endeavour, without having to consider where you fall on the concrete-abstract and empty-full spectra. Indeed, trying to leads to paralysis by analysis. So it seems we need a directive, a heuristic, to help us navigate the treacherous waters which Sanderson, Hemingway and other literary practitioners-turned-theorists have filled with demons and deep-sea creatures. The simplest I can think of is this: Don’t talk about what doesn’t matter.
Revisiting the chair. If, in the confines of my story, the chair—or a quality the chair possesses—is important, my prose should reflect that. For example, if my villain is sent into a God-Rage whenever he sees scuffed leather, the scuffed-leatheriness of the chair should be mentioned. Whereas if my character simply needs a place to collapse after a long day filled with many instances of mistreated leather, then I can get away with calling a chair a chair. I don’t have to describe it in any particular detail. I just draw the outline and your mind fills it in. Which brings me to my final point: a writer’s description imprisons the reader.
Consider the 2×2 again. It makes sense to aim for concreteness, as opposed to abstraction. That’s obvious. But where best to fall on the empty-full scale? That is a quandary. Do you aim for empty? Emptiness gifts space for the imagination of the reader, gives them a chance to immerse themselves in the story by creating it for themselves. But leave prose too empty and the reader has nothing to build atop of. So maybe shoot for fullness? That can work. A meticulous description can make the most unreal situation, place or being seem terrifyingly real. But if your description conflicts with what the reader prefers to imagine? Trouble.
It’s a game, really. Each writer—and each reader—has a preferred spot on the empty-full spectrum. The not-so-easy objective is to find it.