Thursday, November 15, 2012

Descriptive Language in Fiction: Cerebral vs. Visceral

Recently I came across on article on a blog called YA Stands (a great writing blog, by the way, check it here) titled, “Physical Telling: Action Speaks Louder Than Body Parts!” by Nicole Steinhaus (September 10, 2012). Nicole’s article got my attention. Here’s what she said:

“[W]riters rely too heavily on body parts – specifically the heart, lungs, guts, mouths, eyes, cheeks – to show character reactions/feelings/responses. It’s natural, I suppose, to fall back on the most obvious degree of description (aside from flat-out telling the emotion), but that’s the problem – it’s obvious, it’s easy, and guess what? It’s lazy.”

Wow! When I read that, my heart started to race and I felt a sweat break out on my brow. *wink* 

If Ms. Steinhaus doesn’t want to hear about a character’s physical reaction to stimulus or be told the feelings, what does she want to see on the page? In order to illustrate how writers (in her opinion) should write, she quotes from John Green’s Looking for Alaska:

"Dolores insisted that Alaska and I share the bed, and she slept on the pull-out while the Colonel was out in his tent. I worried he would get cold, but frankly I wasn’t about to give up my bed with Alaska. We had separate blankets, and there were never fewer than three layers between us, but the possibilities kept me up half the night."

Steinhaus goes on to explain that she loves this example because author Green “didn’t fall back on the obvious reaction Miles would be having sleeping next to the girl he loves and can’t have. No doubt Miles’s heart was racing and his breath was rapid, palms sweaty – all those nervous reactions.” She points out that the last line of the quote says more.

I agree with everything Steinhaus said in this brief blog post. She’s absolutely right to point to John Green as the master of this sort of descriptive language. I reviewed The Fault in Our Stars here on my blog and think that John Green has written one of the best YA books ever written – maybe one of the best books ever penned.

But for a few days after reading the post, I found myself stymied in my writing. I could see what Steinhaus was saying, and I agreed with her that John Green's work was amazing, his descriptions reflecting his command of language. I felt like, if I need to write like John Green, well, I might as well give up. I mean come on, John Green! He's a master of craft, and more adept than most anybody at creating just that kind of description Steinhaus quoted above. And he doesnt' just spit out one or two gems like that per book - he creates whole books written like that.

I've been known to describe a knotted stomach, a racing heart, or sweaty palms and such. I asked myself, "Am I a lazy writer?" If one relies on physical - or what I prefer to call sensory description - does that imply poor or lazy writing? 

Fortunately, another voice from the writing world came across my vision a few days after I read the Steinhaus post. I’ve recently taken up the calling of reading the Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin had me hooked just a few pages into the first of his tomes. When I came across an ode to Game of Thrones cookbook, my curiosity was piqued.
This is a lengthy quote from the Introduction to the cookbook, but stick with me. It will all become clear in the end. Here is what George R.R. Martin said in the Introduction to A Feast of Ice and Fire: The Official Game of Thrones Companion Cookbook:

“It is true that I spend a lot of words in my books describing the meals my characters are eating. More than most writers, I suspect. This does draw a certain amount of criticism from those readers and reviewers who like a brisker pace . . . Whether it is a seventy-seven course wedding banquet or some outlaws sharing salt beef and apples around a campfire; these critics don’t want to hear about it unless it advances the plot.

I bet they eat fast food while they’re typing too.

I have a different outlook on these matters. I write to tell a story, and telling a story is not at all the same as advancing the plot. If the plot was all that mattered, none of us wouldn’t read novels at all. The Cliff Notes would suffice. All you’ll miss is . . . well, everything." (Emphasis added)

Not your slave … George RR Martin
George R.R. Martin, Photo by Karolina Webb
When I read this quote from George R.R. Martin, I was immediately thrust in my mind back to the Steinhaus article. Now, Ms. Steinhaus is not arguing that there should be no physical description, but she is expressing a preference for what I'll call rational descriptions for feelings. You may also call it cerebral. The writer takes a visceral feeling, like Miles' lust, and uses language to describe it in a way that requires your brain to get involved to puzzle it out. ". . .there were never fewer than three layers between us, but the possibilities kept me up half the night." The readers needs to noodle on this  to ferret out what John Green means. I refer to this as cerebral writing.

And I'm not sure there could be a larger contrast to this type of writing than George R.R. Martin. If John Green is cerebral, then George R.R. Martin is visceral. Here are a few examples of George R.R. Martin's descriptions from A Game of Thrones (Book 1):
"Bran's heart was thumping in his chest as he pushed through a waist-high drift to his brothers' side.
Half-buried in bloodstained snow, a huge dark shape slumped in death. Ice had formed in its shaggy grey fur, and the faint smell of corruption clung to it like a woman's perfume."
.      .      .
 "Dread coiled within her like a snake, but she forced herself to smile at this man she loved, this man who put no faith in signs."
These are but a few examples, culled from the first chapter of the first book in the Game of Thrones (GoT) series, but I think you can see the marked difference in descriptive language each author uses. The GoT is high fantasy. Martin relies on the senses to pull readers into his fictional world. He describes in detail the smells, sights, sounds, and tastes of his fictional world. But he also describes the internal visceral feelings and sensations of his characters. "Bran's heart was thumping in his chest. . ." We all know what that feels like. No need to use cerebral description here. This author wants to put you in Bran's shoes; he wants you to feel that way Bran feels. Sometimes a simple, to the point "heart thumping in his chest" is the best way to do that.

I would hardly call Martin a "lazy" writer. The man can consistently maintain no less than a dozen different "voices" throughout his 700+ page books!

I would argue that both of these writers, John Green and George R.R. Martin, are masters of their genre and masters of craft. They have two diametrically opposed writing styles, but both work.

As I compared these two writers and prepared this post, it reminded me of how we must not get bogged down in didactic truisms, quoted from all corners by those who claim to know the "truth". It also reminded me that we can learn from all kinds of writers. The best writing teachers, in my opinion, are the ones who recommend that you read - a lot - in all kinds of genres and styles. Then, as you sift through it all and allow it to percolate in you, your own style will emerge. Maybe you're a "cerebral" writer like Green. Or perhaps a more visceral writer like Martin. Or maybe you're a little bit of both.

Write what is in you to write, and write it the way that you prefer.

What do you think? As a reader, which type of writer do you enjoy reading more - a John Green-type cerebral writer? Or a George R.R. Martin-esque visceral writer? Do you have the patience for description, or do you skim over it? Which author do you prefer to read, John Green or George R.R. Martin?

If you're a writer, sound off in the comments and tell me what you think about this.


  1. I recall a single comment in an English lit. class back in high school, wherein my teacher paraphrased Henry David Thoreau and said, "Write what you know. Period." It's worked for me; the hardest part of writing for Moi is the marketing. The words flow like a '38 Laphroaig over the tongue. To that point ...

    When I think on the finest writers I've read (Anne Rice, Steve Martin, Mark Twain, Bill Bryson, Garrison Keillor and a fellow called Shakespeare) the hard stance of "no action" being "lazy" is, as the French say, "ridicule".

    We're all entitled to our opinion, clearly. Still, I've yet to fathom the need to cut down other writers' styles for really no end. Any writer, professional or casual, should, of all people, know there are verily no rules or guidelines where it concerns scribing what comes from one's own grey cells. I shall continue to follow the positive musings, not bullet points, of the likes of Thoreau, Hawthorne, Rice and Twain ... and Wright. (I dig your descriptive actions.)

    CiaoCiao :D

  2. I completely agree with you that different styles attract different readers and that doesn't mean one is better than the other. Personally, I prefer fast-moving plots, but everyone seems to be looking for "swoonworthy" prose. I guess you just have to accept your own talents and limitations.
    Really great post -- thanks! :-D

    1. Thanks for reading, Lexa. I agree that we have to accept our own path - that is key.

  3. I am visceral in this case. I have my moments of cerebral prose, but for the most part, I enjoy reading (and writing) the physical reactions. There is a fact of communication that words relate only ten percent of a person's meaning. Twenty percent is tone, and the other seventy percent is body language. By ignoring the bodily reactions to situations, we could be undervaluing seventy percent.

    This is not to say that this can't be given in cerebral prose, I agree that some people do this to fantastic effect. However, to be so dismissive of the physical when some others do it so amazingly well is, in my opinion, far lazier (and far more closed minded) than any writer who chooses to create amazing prose out of that seventy percent.

  4. The reader loses control of the interface in a variety of ways, just as the narrator feels that he is losing control of his life writing.


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