Today’s topic is…well…y’all can read.
What I mean by language that imitates life is words put together in such a way that you immediately recognize the emotional experience they’re meant to portray. One of my favorite things about reading is recognizing a character’s emotional experience as my own. When I can point at the page and say “I know exactly what that’s like!” That’s a golden moment, one that I try to produce in my stories as often as possible. That, to me, is what makes a story immersive. People connect with what they know, and it’s the writer’s job (however fantastic the tale) to give the reader an entry point into the story, a foothold.
For my critical bit, I am (re)reading a bunch of Stephen King. I’ve begun with The Shining, a book I’ve actually never read before. In Chapter Four, Jack Torrance’s son, Danny (who is waiting outside for his dad to get home), has his first vision of the awful events to come at the Overlook Hotel. As the vision fades, Jack’s VW pulls into view, and Danny is still utterly shaken by what he saw in his mind.
He went to his daddy and buried his face in Daddy’s sheepskin-lined jacket and hugged him tight tight tight.
Not only does the lack of punctuation in the sentence add to the sense of urgency Danny feels — the words staggering one after another toward some invisible exit — but the repetition in the end — “tight tight tight” — drives home the reality of Danny’s desperate relief at seeing the man he loves most and views as his protector right there in front of him in the aftermath of a hideous vision. This is a thing that Stephen King is REALLY good at. He infuses his stories with bits of emotion that seem pulled directly from the fabric of reality. And the moment is so small, but it’s something any person who is coming down from indescribable fear in the arms of a loved one can relate to. Especially as a child (that “tight tight tight” immediately says “under-the-age-of-ten” to me).
Here’s another one from the end of one of my favorite novels, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves :
Fern stood heavily and came to me. She placed her own large hand opposite mine, fingers curling slightly, scratching, as if she could reach through and take the poker chip. I signed my name again with my free hand, and she signed it back with hers, though I couldn’t tell if she’d remembered me or was simply being polite.
Then she rested her forehead on the glass. I did the same and we stood that way for a very long time, face-to-face. From that vantage point, I could see her only in teary, floating pieces —
the flaring of her nostrils
the sparse hairs on her chin and rimming her ears
the tiny rise and fall of her rounded shoulders
the way her breath painted and unpainted the glass
This is one of the only moments in a novel that has ever made me cry. Everything about this evokes movements and emotions one would recognize, especially considering the characters involved (one of whom, Fern, is *spoiler* a chimpanzee). Fern “standing heavily”, her fingers “curling slightly” are recognizable to anyone who has seen a chimpanzee move. What follows is an emotionally familiar moment: the narrator making herself known — baring herself in a way — and, after receiving a response, being hopeful and unsure about what that response means. Then — THEN — the “teary, floating pieces.” UGH! THIS is something that anyone who has ever cried (aka most humans) and tried to see through their tears, will recall. You catch a detail here, another one there… And the fact that each detail is begun in lower case & without punctuation which, similarly to the Stephen King excerpt, implies a lack of a clear beginning or end to the details given, conjures up what the world is like through the blur of tears. Through that lens, every detail you catch is equal. And then Fern’s breath “painting and unpainting” the glass…
I mean, c’mon, people.
What are your favorite recognizable moments in fiction?