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Words When There Are No Words

Some things cannot be captured in words.  The high of a rock concert.  The terror of teetering atop a cliff.  The dreamy wonder of a distant train whistle at night.  The arms-in-the-air elation in a stadium when the home team scores a goal.  Finding faith.  Such moments outrun the utility of language.  They are too big for tiny little words.

Yet capturing the intangible and getting down concretely what is beyond description is part of the job for fiction writers.  Without that skill, novels are limited to what is tactile.  Human experience is more than the five senses, though.  It is grasping what cannot be held, seeing what is invisible, walking where there is no road, dwelling in spaces that don’t exist.

Is it possible to transcend words even while using them?  Certainly.  Authors do it all the time.  Today let’s take a look at the method.

Intangible experiences include: fashion moments, listening to music, battle lust, circus thrills, forest solitude, sports contests, a wedding ring slipping into place, holding a newborn, knowing you will die.  There’s no way to fully capture such things by summing up sights, sounds and feelings.  Therefore, we must find a different approach.

Writing About Winning Means Losing…What?

The method I’m talking about today boils down to this: When you can’t describe something, don’t.  Describe the experience instead.  In other words, focus not on the intangible that can’t be captured but on the person who can.

Walter Tevis was one of the most versatile novelists of the 20th Century.  You probably recognize his name but did you know that he wrote novels as different as The Hustler (1959), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) and The Color of Money (1984), all of which became iconic movies?

Lesser known but equally accomplished is Tevis’s 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit, which tells the story of American girl Beth Harmon who in the basement of her orphanage, the horrible Methune Home, learns the game of chess from the janitor, Mr. Shaibel.  The game sharpens her drug-dulled mind and by the age of sixteen she is competing for the U.S. Open championship.  Later, she will challenge the Russian grandmasters.

Chess games are a huge part of the novel, obviously, but Tevis portrays them without ever once actually explaining the rules of the game or how individual pieces move.  Quite a trick!  However, Tevis realized that technical details are not what make the game dramatic.

In an early scene, Beth learns about chess openings from the maddening Mr. Shaibel, who is stingy with information:

She leaned forward.  “Show me.”

He looked down at her.  “No.  Not now.”

This infuriated her.  She understood well enough that a person likes to keep his secrets.  She kept hers.  Nevertheless, she wanted to lean across the board and slap his face and make him tell her.  She sucked in her breath.  “Is that the Sicilian Defense?”


But when they played a real game afterward, he pushed his queen’s pawn forward, and she could see immediately that what he had just taught her was useless in this situation.  She glared at him across the board, feeling that if she had a knife, she could have stabbed him with it.  Then she looked back to the board and moved her own queen’s pawn forward, determined to beat him.

He moved the pawn next to his queen’s pawn, the one in front of the bishop.  He often did this.  “Is that one of those things?  Like the Sicilian Defense?” she asked.

“Openings.”  He did not look at her; he was watching the board.

“Is it?”

He shrugged.  “The Queen’s Gambit.”

She felt better.  She had learned something more from him.  She decided not to take the offered pawn, to leave the tension on the board.  She liked it like that.  She liked the power of the pieces, exerted along files and diagonals.  In the middle of the game, when the pieces were everywhere, the forces crisscrossing the board thrilled her.  She brought out her king’s knight, feeling its power spread.

In twenty moves she had won both his rooks, and he resigned.

As you can see, the contest portrayed in this scene is not between the pieces on the chessboard.  On one level, the contest is between Beth and Mr. Shaibel.  On another, the struggle is played out not on the chessboard but through Beth’s emotions.  The thrill of battle is all internal, not external.

Outer Space Gets Down to Earth

A higher-stakes game is the framework of Catherynne M. Valente’s gonzo-style science fiction novel Space Opera (2018).  In Valente’s future, sentient species have survived a galactic-wide war and maintain the peace with a periodic event called the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a kind of American Idol-like musical elimination contest.  Instead of being cut from contest, though, species who fail to perform are eradicated—literally wiped out.

Space Opera tells the story of a has-been glam band from Earth, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, who must rock out to save humanity.  Rock and roll is a challenge to capture on the page, but even before that Valente must capture another impossible-to-describe experience that comes up often in science fiction: first contact.

In this case, the first contact event is the simultaneous appearance before every human on Earth of an alien described as a seven-foot-tall ultramarine half-flamingo, half-anglerfish, speaking to each human in a different voice.  The experience is described by the novel’s unnamed trippy narrator:

Decibel Jones began to cry.

It wasn’t that his head felt like someone had smashed it in with a cricket bat wrapped in raw rancid bacon, though it did.  It wasn’t that the alien was speaking in his grandmother’s voice, though it was, a gesture Dess would later decide showed real effort.  It had nothing to do with the words.  Everyone cried when the creature first spoke to them.  No, not cried.  They wept.  They wept like the cavemen of Lascaux suddenly transported into the Sistine Chapel just in time for a live performance of Phantom of the Opera as sung by Tolkien’s elves.  Their senses simply were not built for this, weren’t mean to come anywhere near this kind of velvet-barreled sensory shotgun, loaded for bear.  Humanity wept in baffled, unspeakable, religious awe.  They fell on their faces; they forgot to breathe.  The sound of the alien’s voice hit their ears like every ecstatic moment, every compassionate instinct, and every profound sorrow all wrapped up in a ballad about protecting the beautiful and innocent and fragile from a darkness full of teeth.  To each of seven billion humans, it was as though they were hearing, not an alien greet their species for the first time, but their favorite children and their ailing parents singing a duet about how much and how desperately they needed them.

In this passage, Valente captures the wonder of first contact not by focusing on aliens but on humans.  The transcendent experience that first contact would be is conveyed in transcendent language: not what is but what is not; not how different the feeling is but how far beyond it is than anything that is familiar.  The gonzo language—a cricket bat wrapped in raw rancid bacon—is flashy but the illumination is simple.  Whoa.  We’re in outer space, kids.  Someplace new.  The point is not outer space, the point is newness.

How the Unreal Gets Real

Ever since the term virtual reality was introduced by novelists (The Judas Mandala [1982] by Damien Broderick and Neuromancer [1984] by William Gibson) I’ve been bothered by a problem: What happens in an unreal reality doesn’t actually matter.  Not automatically.  What’s happening isn’t real.  It’s a game.  If things are getting dangerous in a VR world, there’s a simple solution: pull the plug.  Throw the switch.  Game over.  Reset.

SF writers have ever since tried to devise reasons for us to care about the outcome of things in VR worlds.  Many of those solutions feel forced, to me, but others are cleverly effective.  One such solution was devised by Ernest Cline in Ready Player One (2011), the story of a near-future dystopian America in which a VR game called OASIS has become a universal electronic medium, somewhat as if God of War had subsumed Facebook, Google and Amazon.  The game’s creator, a massively rich recluse, dies and leaves his fortune to the first person who can find the “Easter Egg” he has buried somewhere in the game.

Now, you might think that the stakes—the reason that the outcome matters—would be founded on the power of the ginormous prize money to affect real-world change.  Or, in the necessity of defeating the novel’s villain, a corporation which wants the prize money in order to buy OASIS and monetize it.  Those are external reasons for us to care; however, while Cline uses those reasons he does not rely on them.  There’s another reason for us to hope for the success of the novel’s teenaged protagonist, the obscure gamer and 1980’s game aficionado Wade Watts.  It’s a reason disguised as something else.  See if you can spot it in this early passage.  (A “gunter” is a hunter of the Easter Egg):

I was jolted awake by the sound of gunfire in one of the neighboring stacks.  The shots were followed by a few minutes of muffled shouting and screaming, then silence. 

Gunfire wasn’t uncommon in the stacks, but it still shook me up.  I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep, so I decided to kill the remaining hours until dawn by brushing up on a few coin-op classics, Galaga, Defender, Asteroids.  These games were outdated digital dinosaurs that had become museum pieces long before I was born.  But I was a gunter, so I didn’t think of them as quaint low-res antiques.  To me, they were hallowed artifacts.  Pillars of the pantheon.  When I played the classics, I did so with a determined sort of reverence.

I was curled up in an old sleeping bag in the corner of the trailer’s tiny laundry room, wedged into the gap between the wall and the dryer.  I wasn’t welcome in my aunt’s room across the hall, which was fine by me.  I preferred to crash in the laundry room anyway.  I was warm, it afforded me a limited amount of privacy, and the wireless reception wasn’t too bad.  And, as an added bonus, the room smelled like liquid detergent and fabric softener.  The rest of the trailer reeked of cat piss and abject poverty.

A total of fifteen people lived in my aunt’s trailer.  She slept in the smallest of its three bedrooms.  The Depperts lived in the bedroom adjacent to hers, and the Millers occupied the large master bedroom at the end of the hall.  There were six of them, and they paid the largest share of our rent.  Our trailer wasn’t as crowded as some of the other units in the stacks.  It was a double-wide.  Plenty of room for everybody.

I pulled out my laptop and powered it on.

Wade’s affection for video games, even ancient ones, is what saves him in an inhumane future.  He is happiest when immersed in a world that isn’t real.  Thus, the actual goal in Ready Player One is not for Wade (who games as Parzifal, get it?) to win the fortune, but for him to preserve OASIS.  (Oasis…get it?)

Indeed, the later part of the novel concerns Wade’s leadership and alliances to defeat the bad guys and preserve OASIS for gamers like himself; indeed, all of humanity.  Why does that matter?  Because in a horrible world, there needs to be a place of refuge and hope.  On a dying planet, there needs to be a place to feel alive.

Words When There Are No Words

Now it’s time to make all that practical.  To capture in words what cannot be described, try the following with your WIP:

Words can’t capture things for which there are no words.  That’s impossible.  But they can evoke in readers the experience of the indescribable by describing not the thing itself but the person or people who are having an experience.  Focus not on externals, but internals.  Show not change, but people in need and in flux.

The inchoate, transcendent and unreal may be mysterious, but we humans are not.  Awe is not in the heavens but in our hearts, and there are words for that.

How are you describing the indescribable in your WIP?  Share an example?

(WU friends, note: Today I’m on the road with my family.  I’ll try to drop in late in the day to say hi, but if I cannot please discuss anyway, the forum is yours.)

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].