Writing dense descriptions and generative rhetoric.

Aside from “What’s best in life?” there are two sentences from the Conan stories that are more or less widely known, even outside REH fans. The most likely winner would be

“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance.”

But I’d say the second is this from the introduction in The Phoenix on the Sword:

“Hither came Conan, The Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyes, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.”

That is just a sentence, but it’s hard to imagine a more apt and densely-packed description of Conan. It is also widely different from the usual way of writing descriptions (or writing, in general.)

Notice that Howard didn’t write: “Hither came Conan to tread […] He was a Cimmerian, with black hairs, sullen-eyes, and […] He had gigantic melancholies….” And so on in distinct, independent sentences. He condensed everything into the basic unit of thought and meaning: a single sentence.

I have started with this example because I want you to see that such sentences are possible, no matter what the common writing advice out there might tell you. Yet there is no step-by-step guide, list of tips, or tvtropes page to make them. These will have to come from within you. These are the sentences, even if there’s only one in an entire book, that will show your skill and will be remembered even when everything else is forgotten.

In this post, a follow-up on the previous one on descriptions, I will explain what I believe is a mostly unknown (yet powerful) writing principle. Expert writers use it, but whether consciously or not, I do not know. I suspect some famous Writer’s Workshops teach this, but wrong, because if you apply what you will read here in a mechanical, unthinking way, your text will, indeed, sound “artsy.” Curiously, I have realized I had already written about this more than a year ago but about using the -ing participles correctly, and I had used as an example a Conan story, too.

In any event, I came across this idea when I read the now-forgotten paper “A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence” by Francis Christensen (not easy to find now, otherwise I’d link to it.). The basic idea of how meaning is constructed in a sentence, as quoted by Christensen, is this:

“When you write, you make a point, not by subtracting as though you sharpened a pencil, but by adding […] What you say is found not in the noun but in what you add to qualify the noun . . . The noun, the verb, and the main clause serve merely as the base on which meaning will rise . . . The modifier is the essential part of any sentence.”

Go back to that description of Conan and notice that the kernel of the main clause (the subject and the verb) is quite small are borderline meaningless: “Hither came Conan” Everything that creates meaning is added to that. First, with the highly memorable “to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet,” but also with a long list of peculiar, short modifiers that seem to float freely in the sentence. These modifiers (“a slayer,” “a reaver,” “with gigantic melancholies,” etc.,) are much more effective precisely because they are not used as subjects for new independent sentences but modify one that already exists.

As an example of that principle, Howard’s sentence might not be one of supreme excellence, but it is a good one as it fuses description with exposition, avoiding my main complaint about common descriptions being lineal, sentence-by-sentence dissection of a subject.

In this post, I propose that great writing usually transforms all those sentences from independent ones into a kind of trailing tail of modifiers. However, before you get there, you need to achieve a level of syntactic complexity you might not be used to, as well as thinking about sentence formation in uncommon ways.

You are most likely used to think about writing in terms of finding the “right” word. But words, nouns specially, by themselves, are quite useless. The adjective is more important than the noun, and the modifier sharpening that adjective is even more important. You can get away using the simplest of nouns as long as what you append later adds increasing levels of meaning. And, at least in literature, there is rarely a “right” word (although there certainly are clearly wrong ones.) Look at everything Howard grafted onto Conan:

“Hither came Conan, The Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyes, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.

Of the thousands of things he could have written about him, he chose those. But they are not the “right” words. Hundreds of others could have worked too, perhaps even better, although the image/concept they would have evoked would have been different. And if you forced yourself to write all that but using the usual relative subordinative style, you’ll see why it’s a clearly, if not inferior at least limited, method:

“Hither came Conan, who was from Cimmeria, with black eyes, sullen eyes, and carried a sword. He was a thief, a reaver, and a slayer who had gigantic…”

Howard’s sentence is quite long, yet he didn’t use relative subordination at all (who, whom, that…) or even basic coordination except for a single “and”.

Yet obviously, the sentence is not simple. So, what did he use? There’s no specific name for it, as far as I know, but sometimes “free modifiers” is used. They are usually participles (-ing and -ed modifiers,) compound adjectives, and other odd grammatical structures like the “absolute.” As this short page shows quite well:

In these sentences, the opening base merely prepares the way, establishes the foundation, for the more specific elaboration.  It is in adding to the base that we generate images and ideas:

-He entered the classroom, his head down, his motions jerky, the burden of his self-consciousness as obvious as the jacket he was wearing that morning, a size too large for his small frame.

Yet the temptation of a novice writer would have been, since there seems to be many actions, to give each one a single sentence (“He had his head down” “His movements were jerky,” etc.) That would have killed the flow.

Although seemingly difficult (and doing this is, indeed, a test of your skill as a writer,) the idea behind that is simple: the sentence is generated by its own momentum and logic by adding modifiers, which are free because they can generally be moved around and shifted with relative freedom, rather than by abruptly ending them when a new subject-predicate doublet is assumed to be needed. The subject and verb of the sentence never change, and every new modifier works either to specify and add another layer of meaning to what is being modified (e.g., a slayer, a reaver, a giant…) or to modify a modifier, like an extra level of zoom.

Imagine a simple sentence: “He left the building.”

Not much to go on from there. However, let’s assume you want this to be the moment when the character (the “he”) is described, yet it’s also the start of the story. You have the classic clash between narration and description, the latter usually killing the former. There is a lot of things you want to tell but you really can’t, so you have to choose. Indeed you will have to choose, but you can also fuse everything into a single unit:

Running, glancing backward at every ankle-twisting turn, with no recollection of the past three months, his only possessions the faded blue gown and a piece of paper with a phone number on it, he left the building, a dilapidated hospital of crumbling concrete and broken glass lit only by the cadaverous glow of dying fluorescent lamps.

The entire first part modifies “he”, the second “building.” Notice that I avoided the problem of having to write many distinct sentences, one for each of the actions (“he ran”, “he glanced backwards,” “he was wearing only…” “the building was such and such”), by transforming those actions into modifiers of the subject and object. This is quite useful when you encounter that common issue of describing how somebody looks and also what that person is doing. By transforming one or the other into short modifiers, you can squeeze everything into a single sentence.

That’s just an example, which I didn’t think very thoroughly or carefully. In fact, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to say except a vague feeling about the place and the actions of the man. Everything else was spontaneously generated later, its incremental, cumulative logic helping me along the way. Naturally, later there is quite a lot of editing to make sure everything is alright and I haven’t committed any grammatical fumble or logical misstep (and I think I haven’t.)

There is no rule for building these as long as you don’t manufacture some ungrammatical abomination and the sentence ends up making sense. This style is highly individualistic and will inevitably show your voice and style, for the ways in which they can be written are almost infinite. If you make a sentence like that, you cannot write like a security camera, pretending that you are describing a “reality.” You are creating that reality as you write.

In fact, you will quickly realize most descriptive elements you had in mind at first might be superfluous because space goes at a premium when everything has to go into a single sentence, no matter how long you make it (and you can make them very long.) You have to choose, but not what “things” (for these are potentially infinite) to describe but what meaning, emotion, or image to convey.

Moreso, meaning in such sentences is build drilling downwards, so to speak, rather than moving forward by adding new sentences, as would be the more natural, untrained way of doing it. In my example, the narrative logic starts and ends with “He left the building.” Nothing is said about what he did before or after. No new subject or object is invoked. All those modifiers specify what kind of “he” and “building” are we talking about.

I believe this “technique” can help you make better descriptions since, ideally, in a description, you are just modifying a noun (a person, a building, etc.) to specify what it is.

You don’t have to get fancy or punish your readers with purple prose. In fact, this style rewards concise writing because each individual modifier can’t get too long or you run the risk of inadvertently creating a new, potentially ungrammatical sentence without realizing it. You don’t have to vomit page-long sentences either. Sometimes, this works best just by joining together two or three distinct sentences within the same key description orparagraph. Then, afterwards, for the rest of the text, you can employ easier or more common ways of writing.

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