Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Narrowing of the Perceptible World

By: Bryan Russell

The ant clambered over a few grains of sand. “Come with me,” he said to his friend, and his friend followed.

The ant dodged a wayward leaf and clambered over a twig. “This way, this way,” he said, waving his friend forward. They trudged ahead. The ant scampered over fallen blades of grass. He was excited – home was close.

He sighted the entrance to the tunnel. “We’re here,” the ant said, pointing, but the rhinoceros had trouble making out the doorway and squinted in vain.

A little joke, yes, but such little jokes often occur accidentally in the writing of fiction. Specificity of details is necessary for creating vivid fiction, yet the devil is in those details, hiding away his little horned head and laughing.

Details are necessary, it’s true, but just as important is their proper sequencing. If we want a joke, we withhold the fact that the ant’s friend is a rhinoceros. But if we’re trying to create a vivid fictive picture, what John Gardner called the dream vision, we need to be able to see what’s happening. We need to know that the ant’s friend is a rhinoceros right from the start. The image is unclear (and untrue) until we know.

A joke is a trick; fiction is a matter of trust. A reader must trust the writer to create a world, a world they can see and feel, a world in which the rug is not always pulled out from beneath their feet.

And if we are to create a vivid new world (as all writers do, whether writing something fantastical or utterly familiar), we must do so by creating the sensual experience of this world using only our words. For what we know of our own world is through our senses, through the physical impressions that reach us, and if we want our fictive world to be convincing (and, for a time, overshadow the real one) we must not only find the right sensory details but also properly sequence them.

Without this, the dream vision lacks harmony and flow. The vision will jar the reader. Ripples will appear in the fabric of the story, the reflected vision becoming blurred and distorted.

To sequence these details we must not only know what we sense about the world, but how we sense it.

Let us say we want to fabricate a river in our new world. Yet to do so, to create a convincing river, sometimes we need something more than the word itself. How do we come upon a river? Rarely do we first see the glistening shell of the waterbug on its surface, but rather a sense of the river as a whole. Our gaze, our sensual experience, narrows as we take something in, moving from large to small. Indeed, our senses typically work this way.

We first hear, perhaps, the roar and rush of water. It is not a clear sound, at first, but a background noise, a natural white noise underlying the sounds around us. It grows louder, and as it does (as we draw nearer) the roar becomes more particular. The sound sharpens, becomes clearer. Individual sounds become distinguishable: a few rapids; water falling on stone; the eddy and rush of a whirlpool; the trickle of a stream feeding the hungry river.

We still can’t see the river itself, perhaps, as it is blocked from view by a wall of pine trees – though the brightness of their greenery speaks of water and life. Yet we can smell it. The clear scent of water beneath the scent of pine needles. And after a moment this, too, sharpens. A scent of moss, a hint of wet shale. A green and thick smell where the water has pooled in little grottoes.

The river manifests itself through the trees: sparks of reflected light, and then as we part the trees the bright surface of the water, a sense of movement and weight and width. Our gaze draws in, and we note the texture of the water, how it moves and shapes itself over stones, how lines of flow mark its bends and twists. Rounded stones resist the movement of the river, skins of moss like green shadow. A leaf floats, a castaway from some elm tree in a forgotten upstream world. Waterbugs glide and shimmy on the surface. A fish peels away, a flick of silver, disturbed by our shadow on the water.

We reach out a hand – cold. The water is cold. We pull out our hand and drops splash down. Again we touch. Cold, yes, but we also feel the weight of the water pressing on our fingers, the line of temperature change on the surface, lines of flow and movement beneath. Silt skims our fingertips, almost soft, as it courses along the floor of the river.

A taste on our lips. Water and wetness at first, and the taste of cold, but also, deeper on the tongue, the taste of that silt, the soft grit of it, and the mustiness of leaves and dry grass and other wayward travelers – the taste of an autumn flowing toward winter.

A river. We have seen it in the looking glass and fallen through, into the image. The world has narrowed itself into pertinent details.

There are always exceptions, of course; sometimes observations deviate from such patterns, but always for particular reasons, for particular literary effects. The key is to find not only what we should sense about this world we want to make, but how we should sense it. How do we find the touch and taste of it? It is in finding that particular pattern that we will find a convincing dream of a new world.


heyjude said...

Wow! Thank you. I'll be right back. I'm going out to walk along the river near my house.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Love, love this! As always, I enjoy your prose, but I love the idea of richness of imagery used to flesh out your literary world. The trick is to not overload the senses, but keep the flow of your story - to interpret the world through your character's eyes and thus make it real. I also like the idea of the same world changing with the character, seen anew as the character changes through the story.

Tahereh said...

this is BRILLIANT, Ink.

also, i think i'll be calling you "Ink" forever.

fantastic post. :D

Brown Bear said...

Great piece!
If you're true to your reader they'll keep coming back for more.!/DaniyoGarcia

Hannah Jenny said...

Wow. Great point, great writing. You seem to be very familiar with rivers!!c

D.G. Hudson said...

A stroll by the water, whether river, ocean or lake, serves to revive the senses and make us aware of how much we might miss if we don't stop to actually 'see' the world.

Excellent post, INK. Another writer told me not long ago -- always try to bring in the five senses to the description. You have done that with the taste of the water, hearing the sounds, and etc. Great food for thought on a Monday.

k10wnsta said...

most impressive.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

Always a good reminder.

Claudie A. said...

Awesome post, Ink! I always struggle with descriptions, and I often have to come back and detail them better in my later drafts. This will help!

Mira said...

Absolutely gorgeous. I loved how you brought in all five senses, and you did it in such a way that it will stay with me. I won't forget this.

Awesome, Bryan.

Chase Holland said...

Great post, very true. I try my best to absorb as much of the world around me as possible so I can put it on the page later. Thanks for posting this!

Check out my blog:

Follow me on Twitter:!/ChaseOneal

Steppe said...

Beautiful powerful exposition combining an assertion of the art and the craft of the creative process, expounded within the noble confines of establishing deep trust with the reader; all the threads of thought pulled together and wrapped up in a tight proof of concept example. Well done.

Marilyn Peake said...

I love the richness of your descriptive prose. This post really drew me in.

Leila said...

Wow! Incredible post. I really love how you take concepts and transform them into rich, amazing imagery that engages all the senses.

Your message is so, so important and you've explained it brilliantly, as always!

J. T. Shea said...

...and the rug was pulled out from under our feet. We fell into the river, which looked and felt and sounded and smelled and tasted awful. And our names turned out to be Adam and Eve. Adam the ant and Eve the rhinoceros. But it was all a dream.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


I never did trust that Eve...

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

And thanks, all.

Layla Fiske said...

Great post, great imagery!!

You've illustrated how very important it is to remember to include all the details and sensory prompts that we so often take for granted and forget to include in our writing.


Douglas Morrison said...

Great post. Descriptives are the ties that lift and bind a story. Characters have their colors, but without the sensory presents of the world around them, they fall short.

Most often, the narrative carry's these responsibilties. The character/narrator intersection of scene and detail is definely a favored moment.

Is it a challenge to chose how much detail a character describes? How deeply involved in the immediate or ethereal do you allow a character to become before you lose narrative strength?

Please excuse the questions, but your exceptional post made me do it! :-)


ed miracle said...

Eyore fell in. Pooh and Piglet went for a rope. The river giggled as rivers do, and flowed around the bend. Burma Shave.

Anne R. Allen said...

Beautiful piece.

The Red Angel said...

Amazing post with great advice! Sometimes it's hard to just slow down, step back and first imagine the world you are trying to create before actually writing about it.

Imagery can be so difficult to create, but once you do it's so exhilirating because it really is like you just created your own world. :)


Jenny said...

Dude, this was so awesome. Even the title sounds like a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Cathi said...

Very nice post and definitely something to keep in mind. Thanks!

Anonymous said...


wendy said...

Really interesting and helpful post. And some beautiful writing as well.

Sheila Cull said...

Your "roar and rush" sense and sound of water was better put than I think anybody else could have, laugh out loud. Seriously.


Andrea Mack said...

Great post, Bryan. I hadn't thought about using the senses like that before, from a broader scope to a finer one. But it makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the tips!

Matthew Rush said...

I love when Hannah said "you seem to be very familiar with rivers".

Because that's the thing isn't it? You have to be familiar with what you're writing about, or at very least you have to be able to fake it. Write what you know, or at least go out and research or experience it.

You don't really have to go walk down to the river just to write a beautiful piece like this about it. You just have to be sensitive to detail, to perception, to experience, to memory.

Well done Bryan!

Erin Reel said...

Excellent post, Bryan!

Rick Daley said...

Bryan, that was an excellent post!

WORD VERIFICATION: boozesse. To be the booze (Latin).

Hank Rickenbacher said...

You spent 5 paragraphs describing a river. 99% of readers have seen/heard/"sensed" rivers. Describing it in such detail is both boring and insulting. Are we not intelligent enough to know that water is wet and cold?

Also: "the taste of an autumn flowing toward winter." What does this mean? This is the definition of purple prose.

Sorry I can't be as fawning as the rest of the commenters, but I only call 'em like I see 'em.

Nathan Bransford said...


Good writing makes us look at something we know in a new way and transports to a place we wish we were. I think Bryan succeeded on every count.

Hank Rickenbacher said...

Nathan, to each his own, I think it's a textbook example of overwriting. Describe this particular river in a new and interesting way in a sentence or a few words - now that's good writing in my opinion.

Anyway just thought I'd throw out a dissenting opinion.

Marilyn Peake said...


I love your beautiful description of nature! Have you read TINKERS by Paul Harding? You might really enjoy it. I loved it. It's one of my favorite novels. It’s filled with the most gorgeous description, much of it about nature. After lots of rejections from agents, the author stuck it in a drawer for three years, then had TINKERS published by a small indie press, and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction this year. The description in that novel took my breath away.

Josin L. McQuein said...

But sometimes, there are valid reasons to hold back that the rhino is a rhino for a bit.

Think about something like the description of Harry Potter when he wakes up in his cupboard for the first time in his story. The fact that the reader isn't told straight off that this little boy is living in a boot cupboard gives the revelation of that fact more impact.

The scene is no less vivid for holding back that (very) important detail. We still get to know that it's morning and that he's being woken out of a dream and that his Aunt is upset and that it's his cousin's birthday, but the assumption is that he's in bed in a regular bedroom.

Revealing the truth in the way that it's done is a "water in the face" moment that demonstrates things aren't just unusual in this house because Harry's got magic, but even more unusual because this "normal" family has their nephew in a closet.

This, of course, speaks the sequencing. Sometimes that sequence requires a bit of a shock to get the point across. The small clues are there - like the lack of photographs in the house with Harry in them, but the rhino-sized detail of just how horribly this boy is treated is still a secret.

Put the "nothing's changed in 10 years" detail together with the "he slept in a cupboard" detail, and you have a much more powerful image than if the writer had simply started off saying Harry was forced to sleep in the closet. Holding back the key detail shatters the illusion.

Mira said...

Well, I think it's important to mention that this piece is intended to demonstrate the careful unfolding of description.

It is not a chapter in a book - it is a blog entry - a teaching moment - and (I think) a gorgeous one.

It was cool to see a post from Nathan. Welcome back, Nathan! :)

Nik said...

Yes, welcome back, Nathan! And thanks Bryan for the fill-in which I'm going to read (duly credited) to my writers' circle tomorrow. I'm always pointing out that the words have to offer visualisation of the scene for the reader, and of course using the other senses as appropriate. Of course you don't need to use all the description in your prose to convey the sense of 'being there' - you can pick and choose, depending on the storyline, the wordcount etc. But it is important not to cheat the reader - or skimp on sensory cues.
Nik Morton

Marilyn Peake said...

Welcome back, Nathan! Hope you had a wonderful vacation.

OBecian said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nathan Bransford said...

Guys, there's a way to register a dissenting opinion while still doing it politely. There's no reason to make it personal.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


You don't have to like it. Nothing is liked by everyone. I'm pretty fine with that.

But it's also, obviously, merely an example of how the senses work in fiction, used merely to illustrate a point -- which is why I extended the description so far and used all the senses. It's an example, not a piece of fiction.

As Doug was asking about above, the balance of what to describe, and how, and how much, is always fine. And it's going to vary based on the writer, the characters and the story. In a piece of fiction, rather than an example, the description must always serve the story. It would be a very rare story where a river would be described with such thoroughness, certainly, at least, not at one go.

My idea of good descriptive writing, then, is writing that best suits the story -- and that, of course, is endlessly variable, and will encompass styles both florid and simple. I'm guessing you probably won't like all of them, but then there's no reason you have to.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


I agree. As I mentioned at the end of the post, there are always exceptions - and the important thing about these exceptions is that they're intentional, and that they always have an important point to make. I think a lot of us, though, accidentally break from proper sequencing, which makes for passages that are confused and lack clarity.

I think the important question is to ask what is being sensed, and how? And the how should always have a reason why.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


Yes, I read and loved Tinkers. A wonderful little book carried by beautiful prose and precise attention to detail.

maine character said...

Parts of your essay read right out of Deliverance, where James Dickey excelled in describing a river.

Also, Bill Roorbach wrote an entire book on a stream near his house.

And "the taste of an autumn flowing toward winter” is sublime. It’s leaves in ponds, cider, the first frost in the fields.

Dr. Truth said...

"It’s leaves in ponds, cider, the first frost in the fields."

You can taste all that in river water?

maine character said...

You can taste all that in river water?

No, it's what that line suggests. Like poetry, where the perception becomes more than just facts. Just as Shakespeare found “books in the running brooks, sermons in stones.”

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