Bitter Knowledge, by Yannis Ritsos

“Bitter Knowledge” is a poem by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990). It can be found in the collection “Late into the Night: the Last Poems of Yannis Ritsos”.

Consider reading my analysis of Ritsos’ poem “Maybe, Someday” before this one. These two poems can be read together, and it makes more sense for the other one to come first.

As with any analysis of a poem, we should begin by reading it in its entirety first, and appreciating it as a whole.

Bitter Knowledge
by Yannis Ritsos (translation karlóvasi, 6-30-87)

Stay in this sheltering half-light with folded hands.
There’s nowhere for the lame night-watchman to sit.
The chairs were sold off two weeks ago. Out front,
they’re hosing out some large barrels. Barges
lie beached in the harbor. The newscaster’s voice
carries from across the street. I don’t want to hear.
I sweep the charred moth wings off the table
from the night before, knowing only
that all their weight is in their weightlessness.

Tone

The tone is depressed, wistful and resigned. A number of images point to giving up or feeling powerless: the “folded hands”, the “lame” watchman with nowhere to sit, the charred wings. The images also create a deep feeling of emptiness or lacking purpose: The barrels, being hosed out, empty; The watchman, nowhere to sit; The barges beached on the harbor, inert; The moth wings, discarded, burned, brushed from the table. The images in this constellation all show loss: a loss of purpose or function.

The overall impression created is one of sadness, emptiness, and loss.

Watson’s tone analyzer confirms this reading, identifying sadness and fear as the prevailing moods.

Interpretation

Ritsos is talking about his life as a poet. He is the “lame night-watchman”, powerless as death (“night”) approaches. The “bitter knowledge” of the title concerns his life’s work.

Late into the night of his life, he is reconsidering his contributions, weighing the value of his life’s work. The charred moth wings “from the night before” are the totality of his life’s work: insubstantial, charred, fragile, crumbling at the slightest touch. Their value: nothing, except proving their “weightlessness”.

Ritsos devoted his entire life to poetry. He hoped that he might share the beauty of the world as he saw it, through his poetry. This was his driving passion: to end the loneliness of living in his private world; to bridge the divide between separate beings; to commune with others through his craft. At the end of his life, he came to dismiss his life’s work -sweeping it from the table- as a total failure.

Short story Ngu’Tinh available as standalone eBook

My short story “Ngu’Tinh” is now available as a standalone eBook.

davidfshultz_3d (2).jpg

This is a military/horror/action story about a group of Navy SEALs fighting a supernatural threat in the jungles of Vietnam. It was first published in the SNAFU: Hunters anthology by Cohesion Press.

In its first draft, the story was called “Hunter’s High”, because it featured a monster whose psychic-hunting abilities didn’t work on people who were high on heroin. Now it’s named after a mythological creature known as “Ngu’Tinh”.

The story is priced at .99USD, 1.33CDN, or free for Kindle Unlimited readers. It will also be free as a promotion this weekend (Friday June 2 through Sunday June 4) for all readers. If you download a copy, please give the story a review on Amazon; These are much more valuable for me than money.

Thanks for your support, and I hope you like the story.

To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse, by Burlee Vang

To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse‘ is a poem by teacher, poet, and filmmaker Burlee Vang.

As with any analysis of a poem, it should start by reading the poem in its entirety (some would say at least twice). Here it is:

To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse
Burlee Vang

The moon will shine for God
knows how long.
As if it still matters. As if someone

is trying to recall a dream.
Believe the brain is a cage of light
& rage. When it shuts off,

something else switches on.
There’s no better reason than now
to lock the doors, the windows.

Turn off the sprinklers
& porch light. Save the books
for fire. In darkness,

we learn to read
what moves along the horizon,
across the periphery of a gun scope—

the flicker of shadows,
the rustling of trash in the body
of cities long emptied.

Not a soul lives
in this house &
this house & this

house. Go on, stiffen
the heart, quicken
the blood. To live

in a world of flesh
& teeth, you must
learn to kill

what you love,
& love what can die.

Setting the Scene

The title is doing a lot of work to situate the reader. Without it, the zombie-apocalypse setting could be missed. The poem could be read as describing the experience of a survivor in a war-zone. There is an overall feeling of disorientation, fear, violence, and animalistic survival in an unraveling society. But the zombie elements, with the exception of the title, are not so pronounced.

The clues are there: words like “brain” and “rage” evoke the zombie mythology, as does “a world of flesh / & teeth”. But these could just as well be interpreted only as evoking our violent natural instincts. The boys in Lord of the Flies could be said to have lived in “a world of flesh and teeth” in this sense.

Sometimes I like having to work a bit to pull the meaning out of a poem. But in this case, I think the poem works better with a title that firmly situates us in the zombie apocalypse setting.

One of the features that I find interesting about this poem is the way it continually keeps us off-balance and disoriented. This effect is felt more strongly if we begin from a firm footing and are knocked from it. For this reason, I appreciate the scene-setting work that is done by the title.

Disorientation and Disrupted Expectations Through Line Breaks

The poem uses line breaks to disrupt our expectations and keep us off-balance. Because of this recurring formal element, the reader feels the chaos and confusion of the speaker.

Nothing is certain in this poem. Things change in an instant. We feel disorientation, a need to continually find our footing. We are lost in the confusion of the fight for survival, along with the speaker. This effect is achieved in large part through the judicious use of line breaks.

Consider the first line:

The moon will shine for God

This is most readily interpreted, prior to the line break, as meaning “for the sake of God” -until this interpretation is disrupted in the next line:

knows how long.

Our brain is forced to backtrack, to re-parse the words, and amend the meaning of “for” to indicate duration (God knows how long) instead of a beneficiary (God). This backtracking knocks us slightly off balance and gives a subtle feeling of disorientation, compounded by the certainty of our first interpretation to the doubt of “God knows how long”.

It is also interesting that this backtracking effectively erases “God”, who turns from an entity prior to the line break, to a dead metaphor across the threshold of the line break; in the first line there is a “God”, and in the second line “God” is gone.

A similar effect is achieved by the line

[…] Save the books

which, prior to the line break, means to preserve knowledge. It implies the importance of preserving books, and all with which that is associated: our cultural, social, and intellectual heritage. That line is followed, across the line break, with the words

for fire […]

We are forced to backtrack again to reinterpret the words we have just read. Again, we feel the disorientation as we move across the line break. And again, something important has been lost: the value of books has been destroyed across the threshold of the line break.

The first line showed us God, then erased God across the line break. These lines show us our cultural, social, and intellectual heritage, and then destroy it across the line break.

A similar disorienting effect is achieved with the lines:

we learn to read
what moves along the horizon

In the first line, we are given the suggestion that the survivors will pick up the pieces of their society, to rebuild the intellectual fabric of society, until the line break disrupts this hope: they are learning to survive in their new world, and to kill.

Contrast of Light and Dark

This poem makes great use of sharply contrasting images and, in particular, a contrast between light and dark. In the first stanza we have the glow of the moon. In the second we have the brains described as a “cage of light” that shuts off. The porch-light is turned off. A fire is lit, for just two words, before we return to darkness. Shadows flicker.

I really feel the darkness in this poem, and I think that is in part because it is contrasted so sharply with the images of light that appear earlier: the moon, the fire, the porch-light, the “cage of light” that is the brain.

All the images of light becoming darkness are symbolic of the zombie mythology. Through its use of contrasting light and dark, the poem embodies the transformation of human to zombie.

Final Words

I hope you enjoyed this short look at some of the elements in Burlee Vang’s poem, “To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse”.

I write posts on poetry and craft once a week. Check back soon for more posts like this one.

Thanks for reading.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is a poem by Robert Frost, and one of the more famous poems in the English language. I would like to take a look at some of its interesting elements.

First, as in any analysis of a poem, it’s better to begin by looking at the poem in its entirety, and appreciating it as a whole (some would say you have to start by reading it at least twice, since you must first grasp the whole in order to appreciate the individual lines in light of the whole). Here it is:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Rhythm and Rhyme, and Acoustic Correspondence

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter. It has chain-rhymed quatrains -a form that is known in Persian as a Rubaiyat. It’s difficult to pull off in English, because it strains linguistic resources. It is a demanding form -four rhyming lines spread across four quatrains and linking them together- and poor execution will result in rhymes that seem forced or obvious. Frost pulls it off well, with language that seems natural and appropriate.

The rhyme scheme looks like this:

A
A
B
A

B
B
C
B

C
C
D
C

D
D
D
D

That’s not the extent to which Frost is playing with sound. At a first pass, we might notice only the end-rhymes. But there are more interesting effects occurring here.

As I read the first stanza, the recurring /h/ in each line is deliberate, as is the recurring /w/, and the internal rhyme with /ill/ in lines 2 through 4. Each of these sounds establishes a subtle corrspondence, perhaps just below our conscious awareness. I map the sound correspondence in the following way, with ‘x’ representing “unused” syllables, acoustic effects bracketed with ‘/’ marks, and leaving the end rhymes as A and B:

/h/w/xxxxxA

/h/h/xxx/ill/xA

/h/(w/ill)/xxxxxB

(The second syllable of the third line is bracketed because it creates a correspondence between two sounds in a single syllable.)

By the time we finish the third line, we have already heard a pair of /w/, a triplet of /h/, and a pair of /ill/. Here is the denouement of the first stanza: every single one of these sounds recurs in the final line, which is dense with acoustic correspondence, and thereby invested with the energy of the previous lines. Even if we don’t know why, we feel the line as powerful and satisfying.

I map the first stanza this way:

/h/w/xxxxxA

/h/h/xxx/ill/xA

/h/(w/ill)/xxxxxB

x/w/h/w/ill/x/w/A

Visualized out this way, we can see why the line feels so powerful -it is loaded with correspondence to the previously established patterns, satisfying our subconscious urge to see those sound pairs recur. The final line effectively ties the whole stanza together, linking it through acoustic correspondence with nearly every syllable.

Sensory density and psychological fidelity

This is a powerful poem in terms of sensory density. We can feel the cold, the snow falling, the wind. We can hear the wind, the “sweep” of “downy flake”, the bells of the little horse. We can see the evening woods. The frozen lake. And so on. It is rich with sensory experiences. But for all its sensory density, the poem is remarkably internal, closely tracking the mental state of the speaker. It feels psychologically real.

It begins with the speaker wondering “whose woods these are”. There is a feeling of being lost, a feeling subtly accentuated by the inversion of the expected “whose woods are these” to “who woods these are”, which puts us slightly off-balance (as the speaker is). We then feel the movement of the speaker’s thought process -from being lost, to tentatively located- in the space of the first line, when we hear the words “I think I know”. The poem moves quickly, and we are swept up in the thought process of the speaker. Perhaps without our conscious awareness, the speaker’s thought process develops further, not explicitly, but implied by their perception of the woods: the woods are no longer “these” woods but “his woods” (the unknown man who lives in the village). The speaker becomes gradually more confident in a way that feels psychologically real.

Limitations on Human Beings, Finding Our Purpose

This is poem is largely about the perceptual limitations of thinking beings. (At a deeper level, it is about our inability to grasp the “truth” of existence in a grand sense). The first stanza embodies this theme, shifting between a feeling of being lost, then tentatively placed, then slightly more assuredly located in space; it enacts the struggle to find one’s place.

This theme is further reinforced as our attention is shifted to other characters. The unknown man who “will not see” what is happening, or the little horse who “must think it queer”. The speaker, the horse, and the unknown man are all presented in terms of their psychological limitations: what they cannot see, or cannot understand, or are struggling to know.

In the final stanza, we get the sense that the speaker will not keep his “promises”. He wants to sleep, but he has miles to go. The repetition of this final line suggests an ongoing task; the poem ends not with finality, but by propelling the speaker towards the “miles to go”, for which we have no suggestion of a resolution.

The speaker’s “sleep”, in this case, seems to represent death. His “promises” are those owed to his fellow beings, represented by the village outside of the woods. The never-ending task of a thinking being is to find their purpose among their fellow beings (as the speaker first begins by trying to find his place) and this task is not done until we’re dead. It is ultimately a poem about searching for meaning in life. But it is a search that can have no resolution.

This should not be interpreted as a depressing poem. Frost says the woods are “lovely, dark and deep”. The implication here is that our being lost in the dark woods of life, of trying to find our purpose, is actually a lovely thing.

On the topic of the darkness of this poem, it does enact suicidal thoughts; the speaker looks at the woods and wants to “sleep”. Some part of him wants death. But this isn’t the focal point of the poem, or its resolution. Ultimately, the speaker continues trudging on, because of “promises” owed to his fellow beings; he will continue searching for his purpose in the dark.

Oxford Comma

Let me make take this opportunity to make a plea for the Oxford comma. Consider this line from Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

Here, the absence of an Oxford comma means that this line should be read not as listing three qualities of the woods -“lovely”, “dark”, and “deep”- but rather, an entirely different meaning: the loveliness of the woods consists in their being “dark and deep”. And further, if we take this line metaphorically, Frost is saying that the loveliness of life consists in not knowing our purpose -that the beauty comes from our endless search to find meaning in the darkness. Alternatively, we might read this line as suggesting the loveliness offered by the sleep of death -dark and deep- and embodying the speaker’s suicidal thoughts. Or both at the same time. It is a powerful line.

However, if for some tragic reason we stopped using the Oxford comma, we wouldn’t know how to read this line, because we wouldn’t have a mark to distinguish these two possible readings (if the Oxford comma was optional, then we wouldn’t know whether the line simply had an omitted comma). English would lose some of its expressive capacity and would be, to that extent, broken.

The argument for dropping the Oxford comma seems to be that, in certain cases, it is obvious from the context that the items are meant to be read as a list (for example, “the three fruits were an apple, an orange and a banana”). This is a bad argument. We might just as well omit the period from sentences that close a paragraph. Besides, that usage looks jarring to people who respect the Oxford comma. We will understand your meaning, probably, but you also needlessly risk causing annoyance and giving the impression that you don’t care about language.

Don’t break English. Use the Oxford comma.

Santa Claus

Finally, just for fun, let us just consider that this poem might really just be about Santa Claus.

Who is this strange man who has stopped in someone else’s woods at night, on a snowy evening? What are all these promises he has to keep? Why so many miles to travel?

The “darkest evening of the year” would be the 21st of December. But perhaps Frost has taken some liberties here. “The fourth darkest evening of the year” doesn’t quite fit in the established meter, and isn’t quite as neat.

The harness bells evoke a reindeer, and the animal appears in a stanza rhyming on queer/near/year. Is “reindeer” being playfully implied by rhyme?

The opening stanza introduces our speaker, and it rhymes on know/though/snow. Playfully implying “ho-ho-ho” through rhyme?

Well, read the poem again for yourself and see if that interpretation makes any sense:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Final words

Thanks for reading. I hope you liked this post.

Description: Sensory Impressions

We want our scenes to be immersive and believable. But sometimes description feels flat and lifeless. A common weakness is not using sensory impressions effectively. Often, there is too much focus on the visual. We don’t just see the world -we experience it through smells, sounds, temperature, and many other senses (not just five). Writing should capture these other kinds of experiences.

It’s not just about using multiple senses -it’s also about choosing the right details to construct an immersive and psychologically convincing sensory experience.

In order to make our writing more immersive and believable, we should practice engaging multiple sensory modalities, and learn how we can effectively use various sensory details to construct vivid and immersive scenes.

This post is about developing the ability to use sense impressions and details effectively. There will be a few concepts discussed, and lots of exercises for practice.

Learning Goals

Understand the meaning and importance of sensory density; Develop range across sensory modalities, and awareness of options for increasing sensory density; Practice writing with high sensory density; Understand how distancing language reduces immersion; Practice avoiding distancing language; Understand salient details and telling details; practice using salient details and telling details.

Sensory Density

Sensory Density is the degree of compactness of different sensory modalities. A passage that only has visual sense impressions has low sensory density. A passage that engages multiple sensory modalities has high sensory density.

I could describe a walk through part of the city by showing the reader discarded shoes hanging from power-lines, old payphones caked with grime, a boarded up house on the corner, potholes. You’re beginning to see what kind of a place this is. But it’s not immersive description -not as immersive as it could have been if I also mentioned urine fumes from the sidewalk, the hacking coughs of old men, clouds of cigarette smoke -things that impinge on different senses.

A common rule of thumb is to engage three different senses to make a scene feel real.

The following lines of poetry have a very high sensory density:

All through the night the dead

crunch pieces of ice from the moon. (Yannis Ritsos)

This line of surreal poetry, though not aiming to be believable, is vivid and evocative. Part of its strength comes from the density of sensory impressions. We have sight, sound, taste, temperature, passage of time, all engaged in the space of one sentence. It conveys a creepy sense of weary, dissatisfied restlessness, and maybe dread or existential angst. I don’t know what it looks like for the dead to crunch pieces of ice from the moon -and I’m not sure you could find pieces of moon-ice big enough to crunch, or how the dead might get those pieces, or how they would crunch them- but the surreal line comes to life because of the evocative sensory imagery.

Here is another example of high sensory density.

“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde)

We can say that a passage conveys a sense impression to the extent that the reader is able to answer questions about the passage related to that sense. For the passage from The Picture of Dorian Gray, we could test what was conveyed by asking such questions:

  • Could you say what temperature the wind was?

  • How frequently it was blowing?

  • The sound it made?

  • The smell(s)?

  • What the studio looked like inside?

  • What it looked like outside, through the open door?

The passage manages to paint a vivid picture across several senses (and all of that from one sentence that is, grammatically, just about the smell). That’s sensory density.

Exercise – Sense Modalities

There’s way more than five senses. The point of this exercise is practicing with senses we might not normally consider, in order to expand our range with different sensory experiences. Some of these exercises will require you to really flex your descriptive and creative muscles.

There’s a table below with a series of different senses listed in the left hand column. For each one, your job is to come up with a description that uses that sense (write out a chart like this on a sheet of paper). Use your imagination to come up with any scene, setting, action, or object you want to describe. Or use any of the following prompts: piece of fruit, visiting a planet, magic spell, meeting an alien, fist fight, explosion, losing consciousness, stepping through a portal, skiing, falling asleep on a couch.

For example, in the “sight” row, you might choose to describe an apple using sight. For the “temperature” row, you might describe a cup of coffee. Use only one sentence per description. The purpose of this exercise is just to expand awareness of available sensory modalities, and to practice making descriptions using these different senses.

sense modality description that uses that sense
sight
sound
smell
taste
touch
proprioception
temperature
balance
familiarity/recognition
chronoception
interoception (your choice)
electroception

Exercises: Sensory Density

The point of these exercises is to practice sensory density. For each of the following prompts, write a description that engages three(3) or more senses. The main goal of this exercise is to practice coming up with different sensory impressions for the same scene. It is up to you to rely on your creativity to fill in the sensory details.

Additional instructions:

  • 2 to 3 sentences in length per exercise
  • 3rd person, past tense
  • The POV character is your choice

Prompts: (for each one, use three or more senses!)

  1. Going to the dentist.
  2. Playing hockey outside.
  3. Trench warfare.
  4. Shopping at a large mall.
  5. Dumpster diving.
  6. Casting a magic spell.

Exercises: Sensory Density part 2 – specific challenges

For each of the following, render the given scene/action/object by using the specified sense(s). Some of these are super challenging. Some might require a little bit of research.

Additional instructions:

  • 4 to 6 sentences in length per exercise.
  • 3rd person, past tense.
  • When a specific sense is asked for, come up with a descriptive detail that makes that sense relevant. For example, if you are asked to use smell, you will have to invent some detail in your scene that can be smelled; if you are asked to use nociception, you will have to invent some reason why the POV character is in pain.

Exercises:

  1. Render: dumpster diving, from the POV of a blind raccoon, using touch, smell, taste, and sound. Don’t use vision.
  2. Render: hunting shrimp, from the POV of a narwhal, using any combination of senses, but including salinity detection.
  3. Render: being abducted by aliens, from the POV of a farmer, using any combination of senses, but including sense of gravity, proprioception, chronoception, balance, and interoception (your choice). Make it weird.
  4. Render: running from the police, from the POV of a burglar, using any combination of senses, but including nociception and cardioception.
  5. Render: sick on a rollercoaster, from the POV of someone who ate too much cotton candy, using any combination of senses, but including taste, smell, and at least three different forms of interoception.

 Salient Impressions

Salient impressions are the most powerful sensory impressions in a given scene or setting. They are the things that stand out to the viewpoint character.

Try to render salient sensory impressions for any scene or setting. Imagine yourself in place of the viewpoint character -or rely on a memory of something similar- and capture what draws your attention: in an outhouse, that might be the smell; in a subway, that might be the feeling of cramped bodies invading your personal space, or the jerk-and-stutter of the train while you search for something to hold for balance; if you step outside in winter, the salient impression might be the cold.

Because salient impressions are the ones that draw our attention, it makes sense for them to be included in your descriptions, not just because it helps render the scene, but because it increases psychological fidelity. Your prose will better match psychological reality if you focus on the sensory impressions that are more plausibly drawing the attention of the viewpoint character. And, conversely, immersion can be ruined by focusing on low-salience details when a high-salience detail is available (imagine reading a passage where the POV character is set on fire, and they describe the smell and the colours of the flame: immersion is guaranteed to be broken; the focus in this case should be on the heat and the pain, because of their salience).

Telling Details

The smell of flowers coming through an open window is a “telling detail”, because it also helps to illustrate a larger picture -we can picture the garden even though we are only given the scent.

Telling details are descriptions of smaller parts of the scene that help to paint a bigger picture. Unlike salient details, they are not necessarily the strongest sensory impressions. But telling details give an indication or suggestion of the larger scene, allowing the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps. For example:

  • The ascending-and-descending pitch of a race-car’s engine as it whooshes by. This detail is just about the characteristic sound. But it helps render the larger scene. We can picture the race-car. Maybe we can also feel the wind.

  • A single pair of sneakers squeaking on the basketball court, and the rhythmic bouncing of the ball. Again, this detail is just about the sound. But we can imagine someone practicing basketball by themselves on an empty -probably indoor- basketball court. We can picture their motions. The sound gives an indication of a larger scene.

  • Broken bottles and cigarette butts littering an apartment hallway. I don’t need to explicitly tell you that this is a dirty and run-down apartment. The telling detail informs you of the larger scene. If I asked you whether any of the lights are broken or burnt out, your imagination can probably supply the answer.

A trick for rapidly establishing a scene is to use one broad description, just to situate the reader’s imagination, and then supplement that broad description with one telling detail. The formula is: broad description plus telling detail.

Dave Chappelle used this technique with comedic effect (successful comedians are master story-tellers). He wanted to describe a particularly bad ghetto. This is how he set the scene:

We pulled up to an old rickety building[…]

That’s the broad description. Then comes a telling detail (which Dave Chappelle calls one of “the familiar symptoms of a project”):

A [expletive] crackhead ran this way [skittering noise][…] And then another one jumped out a tree [skittering noise][…].

You could think of “telling details” as “familiar symptoms” if you prefer Dave Chappelle’s terminology. He continues the routine by adding additional telling details to further colour the scene:

I look out the window. Remember, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. […] I look out the window. There was a [expletive] baby standing on the corner. And the baby -the baby didn’t even look scared. He was just standing there.

It’s a funny picture, but it proves the point. When you want to describe a scene, give the broad description, and then colour it with “telling details” (or “familiar symptoms”).

Don’t over-describe. It is often better to let the reader’s imagination do the heavy lifting. Give them a telling detail and let their mind fill in the blanks.

Exercises: Telling Details

Your goal with these exercises is to rapidly establish a scene by using one broad description, and one or two telling details. You are practicing coming up with evocative details. They should be small details that help paint a bigger picture. Try to create as vivid a scene as you can by using small, suggestive details that create an impression of the larger scene.

Additional instructions:

  • 1 to 2 sentences in length per exercise. Don’t cheat by using really long sentences. Part of the exercise is condensing your descriptions. Deliver a powerful punch by using telling details.
  • 3rd person, past tense.
  • POV character is up to you.

Exercises:

  1. Render: a medieval battlefield after a gruesome battle.
  2. Render: the lobby of a fancy hotel.
  3. Render: an island paradise.
  4. Render: a maniacal gang leader.
  5. Render: a bookish and nerdy university student.
  6. Render: a magical kingdom.
  7. Render: an evil kingdom of a dark lord.
  8. Render: a goblin with a heart of gold.
  9. Render: a prison with a bad reputation full of violent criminals.
  10. Render: the class clown.

Distancing Language (also called “filter words”)

Avoid using language like “he saw” or “she smelled” or “Billy heard” in your descriptions, and instead show the sensations directly. When you present a sensory impression by indicating that a particular character is the one sensing it, you place that character as a barrier between the reader and the experience. This distances the reader from the experience. This is called using “distancing language” or “filter words”. It makes the reader experience less immediate and less immersive.

When you are editing your prose, look for distancing language and get rid of it. When rendering a sensory detail, you don’t need to indicate which sense is being engaged, or who is doing the experiencing. I don’t need to say “the smell of urine fuming from the sidewalk” -by mentioning “urine fumes” the sense modality is implied; I don’t need to say “Billy smelled urine fumes” -if Billy is the point of view character, it is implicit that it is Billy who is experiencing those fumes. By indicating either of these things explicitly, you distance the reader from the experience, putting an additional layer between them and the experience.

Avoid distancing language whenever possible. Don’t say, “Billy saw a goat standing there.” Just show the goat. Leave Billy out of it.

 Exercises: Avoiding Distancing Language

Fix each of the following passages by eliminating the distancing language. They are not good passages, and they need some revision. For some of them, you will have to be creative and invent your own details about the scene (eliminating distancing language is not always a simple matter of cutting words). Feel free to add or delete words as necessary, or completely rework the passage (as long as the gist is the same). Your primary goal is to make the passage feel more immersive by eliminating distancing language -but that will sometimes require inventing details.

  1. Billy walked in to the barn. He could smell that the goat had left something for him.

  2. Gertrude jumped out of the plane. She felt the wind, and she saw the ground far below, but growing slowly larger.

  3. He felt a pull on his hand, like a magnet, sticking his hand to the rune-symbol on the wall.

  4. She walked outside. The temperature was very low, and the wind felt very cold on her face. (For this one, please also get rid of the word “very” both times it appears).

  5. X89’s cyber-sensors picked up the reading of an electromagnetic field. He could feel the buzzing of the field. The device must be nearby.

Review

Sensory density is the degree of compactness of different sensory modalities. Prose with a high sensory density will feel more real and immersive than prose with a low sensory density. A rule of thumb is to aim for three different senses.

Try to give salient sensory impressions. In addition to helping to render the scene, this increases psychological fidelity. Conversely, a passage that neglects a high-salience impression to focus on a low-salience one risks breaking reader immersion.

Avoid distancing language (filter words) like “he saw” or “she smelled” and instead show the sensations directly.

Use broad details to set the scene, and telling details to add colour to the scene. Don’t over-describe. Let the reader’s imagination fill in the scene based on your telling details.

In our exercises, we practiced eliminating distancing language, rewriting to increase sensory density, rendering a scene with high sensory density, using salient details, and using telling details.

Final Words

I hope you liked this post on sensory impressions. Please feel free to leave comments, questions, suggestions, etc. in the comment section.

This site is updated at least once a week with new content. Come back soon for more posts on writing craft or related topics.

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Psychic Distance

Writers need to be able to control how close they are to the mind of their viewpoint character. They need to be able to zoom-in or pull-back depending on the passage.

This aspect of narrative style is called “psychic distance”: how close the narration is to the mind of the viewpoint character. If you want to a book for this and other topics on the craft of fiction, check out John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction”.

Learning Goals

Our learning goals are to understand the importance of psychic distance, and its relation to emotional writing; to understand the effect of psychic distance on reader experience; to be able to recognize four different levels of psychic distance; and, to be able to modulate psychic distance in our writing.

Four Levels of Psychic Distance

Consider the following passage:

There was a pie on the windowsill. Billy was hungry, and he thought the pie smelled delicious. I’m going for it, Billy thought. Yum! Blueberry!

This passage goes through four distinct levels of psychic distance, beginning at the most psychically distant -facts outside of Billy’s head- to the most psychically proximal -inside Billy’s head, experiencing what he does directly, without the interference of a narrator.

The closer we move inside Bill’y head, the more we experience his world as our own. Psychically proximal writing is more emotional and more immediate.

The following chart summarizes the levels of psychic distance:

psychic distance explanation example
objective outside of character’s head; facts/observations about world There was a pie on the windowsill
reporting; indirect thought inside character’s head, summarized/amended by narrator Billy was hungry, and he thought the pie smelled delicious
transcribing; direct thought inside character’s head,
passed directly by narrator
I’m going for it, Billy thought.
stream of consciousness deepest inside character’s head,
unmediated by narrator
Yum! Blueberry!

We could rewrite the Billy passage to illustrate by contrast the effect of psychic distance.

A pie, right on the windowsill! That pie smells delicious, Billy thought. He decided he was going to eat the pie. And he did.

Here, the psychic distance goes from closest to furthest. It is not as good when written this way. There is something unsatisfying about pulling away from the experience as the action progresses. Really, we want to be emotionally proximal at the close of the passage, where the action is (eating the pie).

As a general rule, action and tension should increase as a passage progresses. Maybe as a related principle we could say that psychic distance should be drawn closer as a paragraph progresses -establish the necessary facts, then shrink the psychic distance, and show us the experience.

How close or far should the psychic distance generally be? I don’t think it is possible to answer this question. It is an issue of style and the type of story you are telling. The important thing is that you, as a writer, are able to control psychic distance in order to achieve the effect on the reader that you’re aiming for. You need to be able to skillfully modulate psychic distance to serve your narrative purposes.

The following exercises are designed to develop skill with psychic distance.

Exercises

For each of the following exercises, we’ll use third person limited, past tense.

  1. Write four sentences, each at a different psychic distance, about someone running through a red light.
  2. Write four sentences, each at a different psychic distance, about someone being chased by a dog.
  3. Write four sentences, each at a different psychic distance, about someone passing a lemonade stand on a hot day.
  4. Write a passage about one continuous play in soccer or hockey, involving some combination of passing, movement, shooting, etc, where there the final sentence is a goal scored; the psychic distance of the sentences, in order, will be 4(2/3)4(2/3)4321, with 4 representing the furthest psychic distance and 1 the closest (and numbers separated by a slash are a choice).
    • What emotional effect did the changing psychic distance have on the writing?
    • What did you like or not like about the passage you wrote?
    • What change(s) to the pattern of psychic distance could be made to improve the passage (by changing existing sentences or by adding new ones)? Make those changes.
  5. Write a passage about a soldier in a war-zone; the psychic distance of the sentences, in order, will be 44(2/3)111(2/3)44, with 4 representing the furthest psychic distance and 1 the closest (and numbers separated by a slash are a choice).
    • What emotional effect did the changing psychic distance have on the writing?
    • What did you like or not like about the passage you wrote?
    • What change(s) to the pattern of psychic distance could be made to improve the passage (by changing existing sentences or by adding new ones)? Make those changes.

Recap

Psychic distance is how close the narration is to the mind of the viewpoint character. The psychic distance that is appropriate depends on the effect the writer is trying to achieve. Writers need to be able to modulate psychic distance.

We practiced writing at different levels of psychic distance; we reflected on the effect of psychic distance on reader experience; we practiced modulating psychic distance, and experimented with patterns of psychic distance as they might appear in a passage.

Final Words

I hope you liked this article on Psychic Distance. This site is updated at least once a week with articles about writing.

David