The use of vivid descriptive detail is one of the most potent tools writers have in their arsenal. When crafted with care, description can bring fictional stories to life by giving them a corporal reality that is both believable and deeply felt. In “Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life,” compiled by Carole F. Chase, L’Engle writes,
“The writer of fiction – and I include in this all the works of the imagination, poetry, plays, realistic novels, fantasy – may never tell; he must show, and show through the five senses. “Describe this room in which we’re sitting,” I say, “and make use of all five of your senses. Don’t tell us. Show us.” The beginning writer finds this difficult. I have to repeat and repeat: fiction is built upon the concrete. A news article is essentially transitory and may be built upon sand. The house of fiction must be built upon rock. Feel, smell, taste, hear, see: show it” (225).
A prolific and incredibly imaginative writer, L’Engle nimbly puts into practice this “show don’t tell” philosophy in her award winning fantasy, “A Wrinkle in Time.” Fantasies are so-named because they portray people, places and abilities that don’t really exist and, indeed, can’t really exist in the world as we know it. L’Engle takes on the challenge of describing improbable things through her skillful use of sensory detail, comparisons, simplifications and characterizations. She is at her best when describing extraordinary physical experiences that readers can’t possibly have had. For example, when the young protagonist, Meg Murry, finds herself catapulted through time and space to a two-dimensional planet, L’Engle describes the resulting effects as follows,
“Without warning, coming as a complete and unexpected shock, she felt a pressure she had never imagined, as though she were completely flattened out by an enormous steam roller … her lungs were squeezed together so that although she was dying for want of air there was no way for her lungs to expand and contract, to take in the air that she must have to stay alive … She tried to gasp, but a paper doll can’t gasp. She thought she was trying to think, but her flattened out mind was unable to function as her lungs; her thoughts were squashed along with the rest of her. Her heart tried to beat; it gave a knifelike, sidewise movement, but it could not expand” (76).
L’Engle doesn’t just tell readers that Meg was flat. She helps us visualize what Meg looked like in a two dimensional world by making carefully chosen comparisons to familiar objects, such as a steam roller, paper doll and knife. She also conjures up Meg’s experience on a more physical level by getting inside her body and describing what it felt like from the inside out. Thus, we get a visceral sense of how Meg felt in a flattened state with lungs that couldn’t inflate, a heart that couldn’t beat and a mind that couldn’t think.
The notion of time travel via tesseracts, or wrinkles in time, is central to L’Engle’s story. She cleverly describes it, not only through Meg’s depictions, but also through simple diagrams and uncomplicated explanations provided by Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who, two of the three magical characters in the story.
“… Mrs. Who took a portion of her white robe in her hands and held it tight.
‘You see,’ Mrs. Whatsit said, ‘if a very small insect were to move from the section of skirt in Mrs. Who’s right hand to that in her left, it would be quite a long walk for him if he had to walk straight across’ (73).
Swiftly, Mrs. Who brought her hands, still holding the skirt, together.
‘Now, you see,” Mrs. Whatsit said, ‘he would be there, without that long trip. That is how we travel’ (73).
Rather than delving into the intricacies of advanced math and physics, L’Engle makes the essence of time travel more understandable through a straightforward, concrete example, explained in words, drawn on the page and enacted by her characters.
In addition to creating vibrant descriptions through comparisons, sensory details and simplificationss, L’Engle draws on the power of characterization to bring her imaginings to life. This is evident in her portrayal of Mrs. Which, the leader and oldest of the story’s three magical characters. From time to time her black hat, robe and broomstick materialize, but for the most part Mrs. Which appears as just a shimmer.
“There was a faint gust of wind, the leaves shivered in it, the patterns of moonlight shifted, and in a circle of silver something shimmered, quivered, and the voice said, ‘I ddo nott thinkk I willl matterrialize commpletely. I ffindd itt verry ttirinngg, andd wee hhave mmuch ttoo ddoo” (55).
L’Engle telescopes several aspects of Mrs. Which’s character through her choice of name, appearance, behavior and speech pattern. First, by giving Mrs. Which a name that sounds like “witch” and intermittently dressing her in the iconic black hat and broom, L’Engle shows readers that Mrs. Which is witch-like, suggesting the commonly associated magical powers and potions. Second, by describing her arrival in a “gust of wind” and appearance as a “silver something (that) shimmered, quivered” in a moon shadow, L’Engle implies that Mrs. Which is mysterious, celestial, like lunar light, reflected off the sun, perhaps even an enlightened being. Lastly, by making it difficult for Mrs. Which to materialize and for Meg to see her directly, L’Engle shows readers that Mrs. Which is not really of Meg’s world, but rather exists far away somewhere in another dimension. L’Engle further emphasizes the indescribable difficulty of breaking through the dimensional divide between them by giving Mrs. Which a stammering pattern of speech. It sounds as though her voice, like her body, has come a very long distance, breaking up along the way, like a faulty satellite transmission from an orbiting space station.
Writers have the power to bring fictional characters to life and make fantasy worlds believable through the skillful use of descriptive detail. Madeleine L’Engle works her magic deftly in “A Wrinkle in Time” with descriptions often so evocative that she seems to be observing her imaginings first hand. By making comparisons to familiar things, evoking the senses, illuminating through simple explanations and creating multi-layered characterizations, L’Engle engages us visually and infuses us viscerally, transporting us away from where we sit. She successfully unlocks the power of “showing not telling” by living her stories as she writes them, summoning us inside to live them right along with her.
Chase, Carole F. (ed.) Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life.Colorado Springs, Colorado: A Shaw Book published by Waterbrook Press, A Division of Random House, Inc., 2001.
L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. New York, New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1962, 1976.
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