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.
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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.
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. [Read more…]