Partial pictures and imprisonment

According to Brandon Sanderson, the thing that distinguishes the good writing from the bad is its concreteness. Good fiction—and good non-fiction, I suppose—talks in concrete terms. It describes in rigorous detail. Its prose is precise, not vague. For example, when Sanderson reflected on the passing of Robert Jordan (author of The Wheel of Time series), he highlighted a lesson he’d learnt.

“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.”

How a cup of water is described matters. Sanderson talks about this in a lecture on character, one of a series conducted at BYU in 2016. He draws a triangle on a whiteboard, labels the top “abstract” and the base “concrete”, and says that good writers bring the abstract down into the realm of the concrete. He uses the example of love. We all know what love is. We’ve felt it. We understand what it does to our mind and body and soul. But a good writer can make that feeling concrete. Using such an imprecise, inadequate tool as words, he or she can kindle the experience of love in a reader.  

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.”

Hemingway’s theory, and McPhee’s meditation upon it, is a vote of confidence in the power of negative space. If Hemingway had chose to explicitly formulate his theory—he didn’t because that would violate it—he may have said something like this: what you don’t say matters more than what you do. In more actionable terms, the writer’s job is to paint a partial picture. For example, I don’t have to describe, in excruciating detail, a chair. I can just say “a desk chair”. Or I can say “a rocker chair”, or “an armchair”. As you read each of those words, an image is conjured. And that image is conjured only because I allowed you to do the work. I gave you the shape—“chair”—modified it slightly, and your mind filled in the picture according to what seemed suitable. 

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.

In the lower-right quadrant we have Proustian-Prose; abstract ideas described with precise detail. An example from the first volume of In Search of Lost Time:

“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.”

In the lower-left quadrant sits sparse language that portrays a vivid picture. This is the domain of certain types of poetry, for example, Basho’s Frog Poem.

“Old pond
Frog jumps in

The upper-right quadrant is the realm of Shitty Prose, where a lot of words are used to say not a lot of things. Take a tour through some of the web’s fan fiction repositories and you’ll see what I mean.

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.