Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Start with the Tangible

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 16•15


I was corresponding with a client a few days ago about his opening paragraph. In it there was a sentence bloated with abstract terms that just sort of hunkered or sprawled flattened on the page. Instead of abstractions, here’s a foundation from where  you can begin most writing:  with the artifacts of everyday life. You see, if the reader can somehow enter the world you’re describing in the same way he lives in the real world, then he will become seduced,  immersed in the ideas, emotions, and truths  you’re revealing.

cumulus cloudsThus fiction and nonfiction writing starts with the tangible because it is  immersive, the writer breathing life into the story. The real world is made up of things we’re always noticing—Cumulus clouds, paperback books and armchairs, an old person’s tottering gait,  marching bands,  Sharpie pens, red boots, a worn purple sofa, a belching city bus, the metal-colored winter sky. Details pull in readers, create a sense of place, reveal people, action and tension, making experiences and thoughts poignant, sensory, and alive.          Include the tangible to anchor your words, to give a reader a place to visit, invite him or her into the story world.

When I emailed the writer I told him this: Imagine the opening as if your readers are walking into your story world like they’re first arriving at a new destination far from home.  Before they reach the hotel, they need directions to find it, need a key to their room, then they can settle in and unpack their suitcases. If the world is thinly-drawn or doesn’t have a threat or conflict to pull in the reader, those suitcases never get unpacked. And fiction set back in time or far from our current reality such as the future on another planet, require even more tangible details.

The DovekeepersAs an example: Here are the opening paragraphs to Alice Hoffman’s  historical novel  The Dovekeepers. Notice how it whisks back to another time and place:

We had been wandering for so long I forgot what it was like to live within walls or sleep through the night. In that time I lost all I might have possessed if Jerusalem had not fallen: a husband, a family, a future of my own. My girlhood disappeared in the desert. The person I’d once been vanished as I wrapped myself in white when the dust rose into clouds. We were nomads, leaving behind beds and belongings, rugs and brass pots. Now our house was the house of the desert, black at night, brutally white at noon.

They say the truest beauty is in the harshest land and that God can be found there by those with open eyes. But my eyes were closed against the shifting winds that can blind a person in an instant. Breathing itself was a miracle when the storms came whirling across the earth. The voice that arises out of the silence is something no one can imagine until it is heard. It roars when it speaks, it lies to you and convinces you, it steals from you and leaves you without a single word of comfort. Comfort cannot exist in such a place. What is brutal survive What is cunning lives until morning.

My skin was sunburned, my hands raw. I gave in to the desert, bowing to its mighty voice. Everywhere I walked my fate walked with me, sewn to my feet with red thread. All that will ever be has already been written long before it happens. There is nothing we can do to stop it. I couldn’t run in the other direction. The roads from Jerusalem led to only three places: to Rome, or to the sea, or to the desert. My people had become wanderers, as they had been at the beginning of time, cast out yet again.

I followed my father out of the city because I had no choice.

None of us did, if the truth be told.

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