I often notice tricks and maneuvers in books I’m reading and think to myself, ‘Oh wow! I see what you did there.’ This post will be the first in a series where I quote these gems and document what exactly I liked about them.
The quotation I would like to start with is from A.S. Byatt’s relatively new novel Ragnarok — The End of the Gods, an excellent book about a child’s encounters with the Norse myths. Its opening line is simple, unadorned and masterful: ‘There was a thin child, who was three years old when the war began.’
This sentence introduces the main character and establishes the novel’s setting with great economy, but what truly delighted me was Byatt’s use of the word ‘thin’ — particularly in a book about myths. What I love most about myths and folk tales is the balance they strike between defining things and leaving them up to our imagination. By using a single common, but evocative, adjective Byatt manages to paint a strong image of her protagonist in our mind while also leaving her almost completely undefined.
Imagine if the book had started with this sentence instead: ‘There was a child, who was three years old when the war began.’ That sentence is dull. Even the implied plot loses urgency. A thin child is a character — a child is not. A cranky child or a Lithuanian child is a character as well, the specificity activates our mind, but these words are specific enough that they lose their mythic and unformed nature — the cranky child and the Lithuanian child do not seem like shadows looming up out of the collective unconscious. With ‘a thin child,’ Byatt has her cake and eats it too. Her character is still a blank canvas, she hasn’t even told us her protagonist’s gender yet. How easily we can identify with this child — for all we know it could be us.
This is what folk tales do as well: their plain characters with simple wants and needs are easy to identify with. Plain language is excellent fuel for the imagination. When the brain can interpret sentences with little or no effort, the images contained within them seem to leap fully formed into our mind’s eye.
It is not always right to use plain language like this. A novel about life in the frantic simulacrum of modern pop culture will want to be specific — right down to the exact brand names of prescription drugs. However, there are stories and plots that can benefit from this sort of treatment and in order to craft them one must choose images and symbols and adjectives which are simple and ordinary, but also powerful and evocative. A character could have a beard or carry a sword or a hammer. He or she might be tall or stocky or wear clothing of a certain colour, such as a red riding hood. Details like this stimulate the imagination, but do so without limiting a character in a way that removes them from the universal.