I'm a bit of a hoarder when it comes to books, but I'm trying to reform (Hello, Marie Kondo!) by going through my collection and:
A) reading or re-reading each one--or deciding that I'm not going to read it
B) donating books I won't read or have read (unless I really love the book and am certain I'll tackle it again) to a good home
So when I came across a very old paperback edition of Jane Eyre, I put it to the test. And to my surprise, not only did the narrative stand the test of time, but the writing did, too.
(Not familiar with Jane Eyre, even the 2011 movie version starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender? Penguin summarizes the story: "Charlotte Brontë's most beloved novel describes the passionate love between the courageous orphan Jane Eyre and the brilliant, brooding, and domineering Rochester. The loneliness and cruelty of Jane's childhood strengthens her natural independence and spirit, which prove invaluable when she takes a position as a governess at Thornfield Hall. But after she falls in love with her sardonic employer, her discovery of his terrible secret forces her to make a heart-wrenching choice.")
My reason for using author Charlotte Brontë as a writing role model is not about the plot--although there's plenty of it--but on her ability to create vivid, cinematic scenes. Study describes Charlotte Brontë's writing style as "characterized by a rich description of the visual field of the story, such as the landscape, setting, physical appearance of the characters, and observable gestures."
Her writing seems somewhat dense and old-fashioned now, but see how Brontë uses description to draw the reader in. This how Jane Eyre opens:
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner, the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so somber, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-of-door exercise was now out of the question.
You can picture it, can't you? Here is another example describing when Jane first meets Rochester:
Something of daylight still lingered; and the moon was waxing bright: I could see him plainly. His figure was enveloped by a riding clock, fur collared, and steel clasped; its details were not apparent, but I traced the general points of middle height, and considerable breadth of chest. He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now; he was past youth, but had not reached middle age; perhaps he might be thirty-five.
How Brontë wrote can be called "thick description," the term used in the 1970s by anthropologist Clifford Geertz to address a challenge he had when trying to write about the societies he studied. When he tried to use concepts to describe what the society was like, the description became very abstract. But the more specific Geertz was, the better he was able to bring the people of Java or Morocco to life. Everything got more real, more immediate, more true.
"Small facts speak to large issues," wrote Geertz, "because they were meant to."
As I wrote in my book Your Attention, Please, the concept of "thick description" sounds intriguing, but how do you apply it to your writing? Start by engaging the senses: Create communication that your audience can see, hear, smell, taste and touch.
After all, the senses are always relatable. You can, in an instant, vividly recall the scent of lemons being squeezed or popcorn popping, the taste of pepperoni pizza or bubblegum, the sensation of your finger rubbing across sandpaper or an ice cube on your hot neck.
So use this phenomenon to your advantage when communicating, to draw your audience in and get them to pay attention. By turning on the switch to the senses, you create a vivid connection to your messages.
Here are three things to do differently:
- Avoid abstractions and vague concepts.
- Appeal to the senses by using specific descriptions to help your audience connect by seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching.
- Don't be afraid to make your communication just a little longer to make your communication more tangible.
Here's one more example of Brontë in action--in Jane Eyre's pivotal scene:
All the house was still . . . the one candle was dying out; the room was full of moonlight. My heart beat fast and thick: I heard its throb. Suddenly it stood still to an inexpressible feeling that thrilled it through, and passed at once to my head and extremities. The feeling was not like an electric shock, but it was quite as sharp, as strange, as startling; it acted on my senses as if their utmost activity hitherto had been but torpor; from which they were now summoned, and forced to wake.
I heard a voice somewhere cry--"Jane! Jane! Jane!" nothing more.
"Oh, God! What is it?" I gasped.
I might have said, "Where is it?" for it not seem in the room--nor in the house--nor in the garden; it did not come out of the air--nor from under the earth--nor from overhead . . . And it was the voice of a human being--a known, loved, well-remembered voice--that of Edward Fairfax Rochester; and it spoke of pain and woe wildly, eerily, urgently.
"I am coming!" I cried. "Wait for me! Oh, I will come!" I flew to the door and looked into the passage: it was dark. I ran into the garden; it was void.
Jane Eyre is waiting to help.