Thursday, January 28, 2010

Busted!—John Cheever caught using potent modifiers

In a former post I showed how taking another look at multiple modifiers can lead to deeper meaning. The example I used was “long orange stringy hair”—it gives a brief visual, but not much more. In later drafts I suggested you might examine such clustered modifiers to single out the one that can contribute the most to your story, and then capitalize on it to create meaning.

After posting that blog I happened to pick up an old copy of The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, a collection of short stories by John Cheever. Cheever is a master of the telling detail. I particularly enjoyed this passage from “An Educated American Woman,” in which Cheever introduces his main character, Jill Chidchester Madison, a woman who has light brown hair, small breasts, and brown eyes.

Many authors would have stopped at this roll call of visual elements, which the reader may or may not later remember. Not Cheever. And rather than whittle down to one telling detail, he turns each of these attributes into an opportunity to deepen characterization. Check this out:
Her light-brown hair, at the time of which I’m writing, was dressed simply and in a way that recalled precisely how she had looked in boarding school twenty years before. Boarding school may have shaded her taste in clothing; that and the fact she had a small front and was one of those women who took this deprivation as if it was something more than the loss of a leg. Considering her comprehensive view of life, it seemed strange that such a thing should have bothered her, but it bothered her terribly.… Her eyes were brown and set much too close together, so that when she was less than vivacious she had a mousy look.
In capitalizing on visual attributes in this way, in the second paragraph of his story, Cheever offers up a visual plus oh-so-much more. He deepens characterization, beguiles us with his wit, and adds dimension by suggesting the character’s boarding school past without flashing away from the story opening.

And will you ever forget that Jill Chidchester Madison is flat chested? Plucked from a list and highlighted in this fashion, the reader is not likely to gloss over this attribute.

He uses the same technique with setting details in the title story, “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow.” In the first paragraph he describes a bomb shelter “ornamented with four plaster-of-Paris ducks, a birdbath, and three composition gnomes with long beards.” Once again, though, he did not stop with this visual, no matter how intriguing. Of the bomb shelter he writes:
It was built by the Pasterns, and stands on the acre of ground that adjoins our property. It bulks under a veil of thin, new grass, like some embarrassing fact of physicalness, and I think Mrs. Pastern set out the statuary to soften its meaning.

To be sure, that second sentence offers up a visual: it describes the way the bomb shelter looks from the perspective of a neighbor. But it also creates poignancy and conflict through the pairing of the verb “bulk” with “veil of thin, new grass,” and suggests the way its owner attempts to disguise its ominous presence. [Note that instead of fighting one another for prominence, in this case the modifiers “thin” and “new” support the use of the word “veil” in one meaningful image.]

I should caution that while we can look to past masters for inspiration, we shouldn't always copy. Cheever's technique of inserting the omniscient narrator's voice into a story without developing him as a character is dated—“The Brigadier and the Golf Widow” was published in 1961 and “An Educated American Woman” was written in 1963 (both first appeared in The New Yorker). But Cheever’s use of the telling detail is timeless and one well worth studying.

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. Welcome to her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. Clever way to describe without describing!
    I remember taking a characterization session and the author read from another's book this description of a character - "She was a women best viewed from a distance." (Not exact wordage.) The whole passage gave the impression of a woman wearing way too much makeup to conceal the fact she was unattractive and it did so very well.

  2. Cheever's techniques are wonderful, but this more literary style would definitely slow down a good thriller. So much depends on the genre we've chosen to write and the audience for that genre.

  3. What a great example. It reminds me of what I have too look out for in my own writing.

  4. Great! I love this. It's always a challenge to describe in "showing" way rather than telling.

  5. More recently James Patterson's, Daniel X, and the historical fiction novel, A Tale of Hannibal, just to name a couple, use multiple modifiers. I agree with Patricia that the use of this more literary style can slow down a fast paced novel, leaving it to be used strategically perhaps. A good article to post here is one that distinguishes the different genres and what they offer readers. Authors receive unjust criticism by those who don't appreciate a novel's genre or what it is offering.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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