Writing with Density

Recently, I picked up a writing book in a used bookstore. I like to read books about writing, particularly those that focus on writing as a craft, because I find that I always learn something from them. Sometimes I learn what I don’t agree with, when the book doesn’t make sense to me — in which case I give it away again. But sometimes I find a book that is truly valuable to me, and then it becomes a part of my permanent library. That is the case with William Sloane’s The Craft of Writing. I was pretty sure I would like it when I saw that John Ciardi had written the cover blurb — I like Ciardi a great deal, not as a poet necessarily but as a critic and theorist. I like how he approaches writing, looking for a sort of modernist lyrical clarity, which is what I aim for in my own prose.

The Craft of Writing turns out to be an incredibly useful little book — so clear, so sensible. And it contains the best (and honesty, the only) description I have read of something that is central to writing, which is density. Here’s what it says:

“A vital aspect of the fiction-writing process, and most surely of all creative writing processes, is the matter of density. By density I mean richness, substance. It is the core of knowing your materials.

“Density is one of the most difficult aspects of fiction to discuss because it is not a separate element like plot or even characterization. Rather it is a part of everything else. Real density is achieved when the optimum number of things is going on at once, some of them overtly, others by implication.

“Writing is not a matter of a single, simple progression, with each sentence making only one point. Every paragraph, every sentence is related to the entire rest of the book, and if it is not so related it is superfluous. By ‘the entire rest of the book’ I mean what is to come as well as what has gone before. The part of the book already read is stored in the reader’s memory bank, and each new word is added to that storehouse. But in many ways what is being read is an invisible prophesy of what is to come. This is one part of the ingredient of density. There are many others.

“A good piece of fiction is something like the Scot’s definition of the haggis: ‘A deal o’ fine confoosed feeding.’ All parts of each scene are working: characterization of the people portrayed, creation of the physical world of the story, narrative motion, whetting of anticipation, resolution of the mystery, characterization of the author — style inevitable does this — all the dimensions and all at once.”

That’s density, the best description of it I’ve ever read. What I tell students is that every sentence in your story should be doing at least two things, three is better. If it’s only doing one thing (conveying information, for example), it’s insufficiently dense. If a story is written in such single-purpose  sentences, it will feel flat, one-dimensional. What you’re aiming for really (Sloane would not have had this vocabulary, I think) is a story that is also a fractal. Each part of the story also contains the pattern of the entire story. But that’s high-order writing, J.S. Salinger’s “For Esmé — with Love and Squalor” level writing. What I’m talking about right now is simply density.

Density is how you establish a feeling of reality in your story. The real world we live in is dense, absolutely filled with stuff, near and far. We are constantly thinking about the past, the future. Just as I sit here writing these lines, I have around me the teddy bear I was given when I was a year old, all the books I have published on a shelf across the room from a shelf of the books I was given as a child, my watch reminding me that I will be going to see the lilacs later this afternoon, a to-do list telling me that I need to finish critiquing two manuscripts this weekend, a rock with the word Believe on it that I bought while I was finishing my doctoral dissertation, and a photograph of my daughter from two years ago as well as a poem she wrote last year. My world is absolutely full, layered. That’s the feeling you want to convey in prose.

The most common difference between the prose of an inexperienced and an experienced writer is density. The experienced writer’s prose will be much more dense. Therefore, it will feel more complex and satisfying.

I tried to think of an example of density in prose — Virginia Woolf immediately came to mind. But perhaps I’ll go with the beginning of “For Esmé — with Love and Squalor,” which is an almost perfect short story. Here’s how it starts:

“Just recently, by air mail, I received an invitation to a wedding that will take place in England on April 18th. It happens to be a wedding I’d give a lot to be able to get to, and when the invitation first arrived, I thought it might just be possible for me to make the trip abroad, by plane, expenses be hanged. However, I’ve since discussed the matter rather extensively with my wife, a breathtakingly levelheaded girl, and we’ve decided against it — for one thing, I’d completely forgotten that my mother-in-law is looking forward to spending the last two weeks in April with us. I really don’t get to see Mother Grencher terribly often, and she’s not getting any younger. She’s fifty-eight. (As she’d be the first to admit.)”

Notice how much is going on in this paragraph, which on the surface is so simple. We know the narrator is male, married, and that he takes a particular attitude toward his wife, who is “breathtakingly levelheaded” — a critical although affectionate appraisal. He’s not in England (America, probably), and he doesn’t have much money. He would very much like to go to this wedding, but expenses are what they are, and anyway his mother-in-law is coming. He likes his mother-in-law well enough, although again we get a sort of amused, sardonic tone (as well as the words “terribly often”–what does that “terribly” imply?). We know at once that this is a man who’s distant emotionally, or has distanced himself. He looks on the world amused, and somewhat passive. What sort of man does that imply? One who has been through trauma. He has discussed the matter rather extensively with his wife — we get the sense that she had a lot to say (breathtakingly — did she have to take a breath in the middle of the discussion? That’s rather the implication, isn’t it?  That she did most of the talking, with scarcely a pause to breathe.) And the narrator is not level-headed. Expenses be hanged, he would very much have liked to go to this wedding. Why? Well, in the next paragraph he says,

“All the same, though, wherever I happen to be I don’t think I’m the type that doesn’t even lift a finger to prevent a wedding from flatting. Accordingly, I’ve gone ahead and jotted down a few revealing notes on the bride as I knew her almost six years ago. If my notes should cause the groom, whom I haven’t met, an uneasy moment or two, so much the better. Nobody’s aiming to please, here. More, really, to edify, to instruct.”

He knew the bride. It was six years ago — he is not an old man, his mother-in-law is only fifty-eight. What was his relationship to her? Why will his notes cause the groom an uneasy moment or two? We don’t know — already we are in suspense, because we are put and kept in suspense by things we don’t know. A compelling narrative is simply a continuation of things we don’t know and want to find out.

Do you see how densely Salinger is writing? Really, it takes my breath away. We have place, time, characters, relationships, style, all going at once. Let’s look at one more paragraph:

“In April of 1944, I was among some sixty American enlisted men who took a rather specialized pre-Invasion training course, directed by British Intelligence, in Devon, England. And as I look back, it seems to me that we were fairly unique, the sixty of us, in that there wasn’t one good mixer in the bunch. We were all essentially letter-writing types, and when we spoke to each other out of the line of duty, it was usually to ask somebody if he had any ink he wasn’t using. When we weren’t writing letters or attending classes, each of us went pretty much his own way. Mine usually led me, on clear days, in scenic circles around the countryside. Rainy days, I generally sat in a dry place and read a book, often just an axe length away from a ping-pong table.”

Ok, and now we know where and when we are. We also know that we are being set up for something important, because six years ago our narrator was in a pre-Invasion training course in World War II. You know how Anton Chekhov famously talks about putting the gun on the mantelpiece? Well, in these first three paragraphs Salinger has put two things on a mantelpiece: World War II (that’s a pretty big mantelpiece!), and a woman he still remembers six years later, who is now getting married. In three paragraphs. Bow to the master . . .

What you want to do, if you’re a writer, is practice creating density, because density is one of those craft things: the things you learn, and that you need to practice. It’s like an artist creating perspective (three dimensions on a one-dimensional canvas). It’s like a dancer conveying emotions when all she has is gesture, the movements of her body. It’s an illusion, but fundamental to the art. (In art, the illusion is also true.) One of the best things you can do is read writers who are masters of density and figure out how they do it. The very best of them do it with absolute clarity. Notice that Salinger’s three paragraphs are very simple on the surface — there is not a wasted or confusing word. But they are deep and dense. Read the first few paragraphs of any Virginia Woolf novel and you will see the same thing.

Density is something I work on, something I aspire to. It is the fractal quality that makes black letters on a page come startlingly and vividly to life.

The Craft of Writing 1000

(Here is the book: The Craft of Writing by William Sloane. I recommend it most highly.)

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8 Responses to Writing with Density

  1. Al Lane says:

    Not a dense comment, but an honest one – wonderful post

  2. Phyllis Holliday says:

    Hm. I haven’t thought of it as density. Recently I found an Isak Dinesen book, “Carnival,” I had never read. It was like finding a little box full of golden coins forgotten. I began reading one story which I admired and I was beguiled by it’s structure. I read it twice and fell in love with the structure and began to write a story based, not on the plot or characters, but the structure. I am halfway through and know how it will end. Some obligations will take time to get back to it probably on Monday. But it was a pleasure to think about density in this post along with structure. How it thrills, as you are in the middle of it.

  3. Claire says:

    A wonderful post – there’s a lot of writing advice online that isn’t worth much but this has actually made me understand some things I didn’t know how to express before. Thank you for writing and posting this.

  4. moomstex says:

    I like Ursula LeGuin’s book of writing exercises, too. You are right about density… or at least TEXTURE. I get irritated with fiction that is like overcooked pasta.

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