The Images in Fiction

Someone once told me that he didn’t like reading fiction because it wasn’t true. Now it’s true that fiction isn’t true, but what is imaginary is not necessarily meaningless. Reading fiction can do a lot for us, but one especially great thing it can do for us as writers is exercise our skill in image-making.

Here is the opening paragraph of a short story entitled “Eugene” by the American writer Aline Bernstein I quote it from Reading for Pleasure, edited by Bennett Cerf (Harper, 1957), an older anthology of short stories. Notice the clear-cut, unmistakable representations of both sleep and sweat:

The day was warm, it was nearly twelve o’clock, but sleep still clutched Eugene, pinned him to the bed where he lay helpless. Sleep covered him with a mossy blanket, great clots of sleep were in his brain, choking sleep layered his throat and nostrils. His face was spangled with sweat; it tightened the dark waves of his hair into hundreds of ringlets, and soaked the neck of his opened shirt.

An image is a mental picture of something. We can see an image with our mind’s eye; it has a life of its own and acts out that life before us, like our dream world that comes alive as we sleep. A description, on the other hand, is a statement of the characteristics which something possesses. It is an internal accounting of the qualities or properties or hallmarks of something, and it takes on the more objective feature of an informational report. An image is dynamic; a description is static.

Bernstein’s paragraph contains both these compositional devices, and that is why it is worth looking at more closely. Suppose you have just taken up this short story; you’ve read these opening lines, and already your attention (like mine) is arrested. The natural next question, of course, is how? What is the writer doing to prevent my just slipping along more or less inattentively from this first paragraph into the second? And so an analysis begins. When you’re stopped in your tracks by what you’ve read, isolate the passage (perhaps even copy it out [with appropriate citation, of course] into your commonplace book) and first count the sentences, so that you can see the frame of the passage. Then take the sentences one by one, and next identify the clauses in each. Now you can examine the patient more closely.

This particular paragraph comprises three sentences, and the first two clauses of the first sentence are pure description: the day was warm and it was nearly twelve o’clock. Descriptive statements often employ the verb to be, the chief copulative verb in English; here it is twice in the form of the simple past tense was. Copulative verbs are meant to link or identify the subject of a clause with a noun, pronoun, or adjective in the predicate; here the subject day is being identified with the quality warm, and it, an impersonal subject referring to the general moment, is being identified with a certain period of time. Both clauses identify the subject, and identification is a static, stationary observation.

But those first two clauses end up being a set up. The author welcomes us gently into her story with two flattish descriptive statements, but then suddenly takes us firmly by the eye with the energetic images of sleep clutching and pinning and covering the title character, Eugene. Then once again the less active description resumes, this time relatively stronger with the unusual noun phrases great clots and choking sleep. And this same pattern of description followed by image continues in the second sentence: his face was spangled with sweat, and that sweat then tightened and soaked. Description, then action.

That, I say, is a beautifully composed paragraph, and one that is not easy to read if we want to get the full effect of all its detail. But letting ourselves be affected by the compositional make-up of a passage is just what it means to be reading closely. It slows you down, yes, and it calls for a little grammatical analysis too. But watching exactly how someone else does what we’d like to be able to do is the way we really learn. We build from the inside out, as it were, becoming what we’re seeing.

It’s curious to note, finally, that Bernstein was a set designer in the theater. Design is about images, not description, and so perhaps it was her professional work that helped instill this ability to bring sentences so alive. Would that we were all so lucky.


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