I just began reading Mark Haddon’s The Red House. Haddon, you might remember, is the author of the highly acclaimed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and the even more brilliant (in my opinion) A Spot of Bother. Haddon is, I believe, one of the best fiction writer’s out there today. I only got three sentences in to The Red House before I had to stop to read and reread and gush over a particular sentence, which is so finely crafted it almost makes me want to just give up writing because I will never be able to write anything this good.
“Seventy miles per hour, the train unzips the fields.”
Allow me, if you will, to unpack the beauty of this one sentence. There is, of course, the metaphor in here of a train, which, when combined with its tracks, looks like a zipper connecting the fields on either side. A stunningly apt metaphor, I think. Yes! That is exactly what trains look like.
But a metaphor is only as good as its connotations. What does the metaphor of a train as a zipper add to the text, you might ask. The image of a train as a zipper, unzipping (and not, it is important to note, rezipping) the world around it brings along subtle ideas of something burgeoning beneath the surface, something hidden that is about to be revealed. A pretty perfect opening to a novel, don’t you think?
But this sentence is brilliant for reasons beyond the fitting metaphor it couriers to the reader. This sentence is so elegant, so concise and economic in its language choices that the elegance of the metaphor can shine through. Many novice writers, or even decent but not brilliant ones, would have felt the need to expand the metaphor, to build on it or linger in it a bit longer to make sure the reader really gets it, notices how brilliant the metaphor’s creator is.
Another writer might have written, “The train looks like a zipper, its tracks the zipper’s treads. Quickly, it zooms across the tracks, unfurling the fields on either side,” or something along those lines. But what would that writer have added, for all those extra words? Fourteen extra words—more than twice the length of the original sentence—and no new meaning expressed. Yes, the reader is for sure going to notice the metaphor, but at what cost?
Beside the fact that it’s wordy, and unnecessary wordiness always feels self-indulgent to me, the new sentence is less subtle. Where the original sentence drops the metaphor on the reader and then lets the reader decode it and tease out the subtext, the new sentence tries to force the meaning on you: Look here! A metaphor about things becoming unfurled! That’s what’s going to happen in this novel! (That’s right, this other writer probably likes to use exclamation points.)
In spite of all these newly added words, the new sentence is also less exact. Where the original sentence just stated, explicitly and in four words, the exact speed the train is going, the new sentence rambles around the topic but never gets further than to tell us it’s going “quickly.” This other writer probably thinks the meandering sentences are more “poetic,” but really, they’re just verbose and imprecise.
And while we’re on the topic, should we point out that there are no adverbs in the original sentence? No. Of course there aren’t. Because expert writers rarely use adverbs. I know, I know. I used a lot of adverbs when I was first starting out too. I peppered my sentences with “quietly”s and “firmly”s and “sheepishly”s, and so on. There are a lot of reasons why novice writers overuse adverbs, and there are a lot of reasons why proficient writers don’t, but the main reason adverbs are rarely (I won’t say never, just rarely—and isn’t it funny that “rarely” is itself an adverb?) a good idea is exemplified in these new, sloppy sentences.
How quick is “quickly”? What does this adverb add that we wouldn’t have already assumed (aren’t trains usually driving quickly? And if you want to specify the speed, why not just offer the exact miles per hour?) The writer has included this adverb not because it adds anything to the text but because (most likely) he or she believes the sentence needs more words to read like the texts he or she studied in high school—you know, those canonical works, from back when writers got paid by the word. Those are the texts this writer believes he or she is meant to be emulating, not the ones that are actually, you know, GETTING PUBLISHED TODAY.
But enough ranting about bad writing. Let’s visit once more, shall we, the beauty of Haddon’s words? I’ll give you the sentences that come before and those that follow, and if you like them (and I know you will), I’ll remind you the book is called The Red House by Mark Haddon. Go read it for yourself. Following are the first six lines from the novel:
“Cooling towers and sewage farms. Finstock, Charlbury, Ascott-under-Wychwood. Seventy miles per hour, the train unzips the fields. Two gun-gray lines beside the river’s meander. Flashes of sun on the hammered metal. Something of steam about it, even now.”