Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ayn Rand's Writing: Descriptive Technique

There's something to be learned from reading just about any novel. This is certainly true of The Fountainhead, discussed in the preceding post. The novel offers lessons in plotting and pacing an episodic novel, symbolism, characterization, the author speaking through characters, and more.

In addition, one can learn from certain of Ayn Rand's descriptive techniques--techniques that are best avoided by new writers and, indeed, nearly all contemporary writers.

So, what about Ayn Rand's descriptive writing? First, too many of her images rely on second-hand descriptions of how things (usually buildings) affect people, with few words as to what they actually look like. An example: the reader is left to make up the picture of a life-size sculpture of a nude woman that expresses so much, and offends many at the same time. The reader wonders exactly what it looks like, of course. But the most the author offers us is that the nude's arms are at her sides, palms turned up, and her head is thrown back in triumph. (How was her hair falling? Were her breasts pendulous, nipples erect? Was her stance defying or submissive? Her facial expression--was it blank?) Even though we meet and the character who modeled for the statue, there's no realistic picture in the reader’s mind of either.

A few details, as above, or simple similes and metaphors could have brought the reader so much more into the story, could have made the statue and its inspiration far more real. (“She stood like Sally Rand would liked to have stood, without her fans, proud and defiant and transcending the mere humans around her as she challenged the sky.”)

Houses and other buildings designed by the protagonist, Howard Roark, are similarly disposed of. A structure is occasionally noted as having bricks or dormers or pediments, strange windows, having or not having Doric or Grecian elements, and so forth. Be we never really see the architectural monstrosities, triumphs, and mundania that figure so heavily in the novel. Rand emphasizes the effects of the buildings. She writes of the design of a new department store sending customers fleeing the shopping district that it dominates. She shows us the pure disgust people feel for a universal spiritual temple Roark was commissioned to designed (it housed or displayed on its roof the aforementioned nude). But do they loom? Are they baroque in appearance, or perhaps carry a half-demolished look? Does the department store look like an abandoned prison? Does the temple resemble a Roman bathhouse, or perhaps a pagan alter?

There's a lot to be said for describing a person or object through its effects on an observer, or even on its environment or other objects. However, the author provides few (and sometimes no) clues or cues as to appearance, and as a reader I find this disruptive because I have to stop considering the story unfolding in my mind to create pictures.

Going light on description is not a bad thing. My approach in writing and teaching is exactly that. The reader begins to build an image of a person or thing as soon as your description begins. I give the reader enough to get a solid though general image of "... her blond hair cascaded to her thin shoulders, where it split in twin rivers to obscure her breasts. Below the waves of hair, a long torso and short legs gave her the appearance of ... ." At this point, I don't want to intrude on the image the reader has developed. So I probably won't write about arm length or hands or whether her ears protrude beyond through her hair, unless there's an unusual feature to one of those elements, or it's otherwise important. Facial features are described separately, but in the same manner--long, thin noise, large or small eyes, square jaw, and so forth.

The goal is to give the reader enough to work with and create her own image of the character. Rand usually gives us little beyond orange hair, blond hair, eyes or faces or expressions that have a specified effect, and the reader is left to step outside the story to visualize the face.

Of course, saying that a certain expression or eyes have a certain effect is a time-honored way to make the moment slip by without disruption--but if you use this too frequently, it verges on boring the reader, who reacts with the thought, "Not 'her face made him feel like he was looking at an undercooked pizza' again!"

The point here is that Ayn Rand offers us examples of overdoing my recommendation that you don't use overmuch detail lest you come between the reader and her enjoyment of the story. In other words, her descriptions are often too subtle and indirect.

Back to buildings, we don't get to see double doors, or casement or sash windows, or arched entryways, brick lines and other details that allow us to created the necessary image.

Rand obviously knew something about architecture, and used some of her knowledge for verisimilitude. She need not have written in exacting detail about elements like texture and light, angles and lines. But simple details that anyone could recognize and incorporate into their version of the story would have made a more visual and effective story.

Still ... it worked for Ayn Rand. And I have the feeling she intended to write descriptions exactly as she did for the same reason I recommend going light on details (just don’t overdo that): to draw the reader into the story by involving her in creating it. I just don't believe the technique of describing effects and reactions rather than physical details works well in contemporary fiction.
--Mike http://www.michaelabanks.com/
Copyright 2008, Michael A. Banks


Richard said...

"So I probably won't write about arm length or hands or whether her ears protrude beyond through her hair, unless there's an unusual feature to one of those elements, or it's otherwise important.

But, her novels were not about those details. That, in Rand's context, is 'quaint', and rather dumbed down writing; it is Naturalism. Imagine the length of her two main novels if she were to add so many words to rectify what you criticize her for.

Look at the opening paragraphs of The Fountainhead. Consider the rock, mirrored by the water, such that it appeared to be floating in the air. Roark's feet were not anchored to the rock, it was anchored to him. Whether he had high cheekbones or none is on the same level of intellectual concern as whether he was a Negro or a Caucasian man. Such matters are superficial, when the man's character and mind are at stake. Consider the intellectual distinction between readers who judge a man by the 'accidents' of genetic appearances vs. his deeper nature. Who is better to write to, those who are concerned at such a level, or those who see beyond it?

Of course, you are right for today's authors and audiences; it is what the market expects! Should one stoop to that level? She understood that perfectly well, as she went from publisher to publisher with her manuscript. She found the rare editor & publisher who understood not to stoop.

Michael A. Banks said...

Interestingly, I believe Toohey has the most detailed description, and after him Wynand.

Rand's writing is not dumbed-down. It is sophisticated. To a great extent, I think she was writing after the fashion of the times. Still, The Fountainhead doesn't bring me close enough to the characters.

You are correct about adding to the length.

Few publishers will go as far today for this kind of book, unless the philsophy is making money on the Internet.

Richard said...

"Still, The Fountainhead doesn't bring me close enough to the characters."

It did for me: Roark's knuckles whitening as his grip on a table tightened, while watching his design being altered; Dominique's recurrent appearance at the quarry. Such things spoke volumes to me about character, though not about their physical appearance.

I was not saying Rand's writing was dumbed down, I was saying those latter details would have dumbed it down. They would not have contributed to the abstract values and purposes behind her characters. Some readers do not need concretes of appearance to appreciate, and be captured by, the respective character of the characters.

Michael A. Banks said...

I see your points, Richard. Either way, it certainly worked for her.

Going back to the book, there's a very detailed description of a woman "whose thighs began at her ankles." Just a walk-on part, but you get a vivid image.

Thanks for the posts!

Richard said...

M.A.Banks, I had a music teacher like that once, really. On top of that, her name was Miss Cocks. I can hardly remember anything else in my life between Grade 7 and Grade 9. It was all her. The rest of her was perfect too, but I am sure my judgment failed to consider her fundamental character. She was just "nice", whatever that was.