The Emperor Ponders Dense Descriptions

Emperor Norton has written a follow-up on generating dense descriptions, and it is well worth the wait. I talked about thick descriptions in one of my posts on this subject, but Norton is here talking about dense descriptions, where every word is pregnant with meaning.

A dense description isn’t an attempt to put a Frazetta piece into words.

A dense description isn’t an attempt to put a Frazetta piece into words.

Norton uses Robert E. Howard as an example of a dense description:

“Hither came Conan, The Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyes, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.”

By way of explanation of what is going on here, Norton refers to “A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence” by Francis Christensen:

When you write, you make a point, not by subtracting as though you sharpened a pencil, but by adding […] What you say is found not in the noun but in what you add to qualify the noun . . . The noun, the verb, and the main clause serve merely as the base on which meaning will rise . . . The modifier is the essential part of any sentence.

Norton goes on:

You are most likely used to think about writing in terms of finding the “right” word. But words, nouns specially, by themselves, are quite useless. The adjective is more important than the noun, and the modifier sharpening that adjective is even more important. You can get away using the simplest of nouns as long as what you append later adds increasing levels of meaning. And, at least in literature, there is rarely a “right” word (although there certainly are clearly wrong ones.)

Of the thousands of things he could have written about him, he chose those. But they are not the “right” words. Hundreds of others could have worked too, perhaps even better, although the image/concept they would have evoked would have been different.

One of the reasons that I enjoy reading Norton is that he knows grammar and narrative construction so well. English grammar is a subject I slept through in school, and while I possess the intuitive sense of a lifelong reader as to what looks and sounds right, I cannot articulate anything interesting about it.

However, something I do know well is Aristotelian philosophy, and what is going on here makes an immense amount of sense to me as a development of Aristotelian term logic. Read this passage by James Chastek on Aristotle’s logic as compared to modern propositional logic:

Willard, much to his credit, recognizes the foundation that his logic must stand on: “information comes to us in units” and these units are propositions. To be blunt, this is not my experience and I doubt that it is Willard’s. Information comes to us and we make propositions out of it. The difference is important. Neither experience nor information have a propositional character. Prior to forming a proposition, we have to determine a ratio of the subject, and these rationes are infinite. Consider the experience you have after the colon:


What ratio did you specify the experience with? Did you see “Dave” and think “Chastek’s example” or “name” or “English” or “Wow, my name!” or “a guy” or “male”? All of them are true, all are there, and all of them set the condition for what proposition we form, if we form one at all. The determination of these rationes has many variables: English speakers will not form the same ratio as non-English speakers; people named Dave can’t be expected to form the same ratio as people who hate guys named Dave; people writing doctoral dissertations on the use of the silent “e” won’t have the same ratio as those who are not doing so, etc. Likewise, sometimes these rationes are formed more or less spontaneously, sometimes they are determined by cultural factors, sometimes they take a good deal of study and learning to discern. Sometimes these rationes specify something that exists, other times they do not. But a ratio is always pre-propositional, and it immediately follows upon our decision to engage our experience. It is the true unit of logical discourse.

Term logic’s base unit is the definition: that which distinguishes one thing from another. When presented at the undergraduate level, much effort is usually devoted to those relatively few things that can be completely defined absolutely. However, the more interesting bits of our experience are things like both Norton and Chastek talk about: there are lots of ways of speaking of a thing, and in a sense many of them are “right”, but they are not all equally memorable.

Let’s take another example from Howard that I have to hand:

Solomon_Kane (1).jpg

He never sought to analyze his motives and he never wavered once his mind was made up. Though he always acted on impulse, he firmly believed that all his actions were governed by cold and logical reasonings. He was a man born out of his time--a strange blending of Puritan and Cavalier, with a touch of the ancient philosopher, and more than a touch of the pagan, though the last assertion would have shocked him unspeakably. An atavist of the days of blind chivalry he was, a knight-errant in the somber clothes of a fanatic. A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, and urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things, avenge all crimes against right and justice. Wayward and restless as the wind, he was consistent in only one respect--he was true to his ideals of justice and right. Such was Solomon Kane.

This description of Solomon Kane is good, but not great. The description of Conan is thirty-four words; that of Solomon Kane one hundred and fifty. The latter is written in the subject/predicate style that Norton deplores. At least in this case, it is at least interesting enough that I excerpted it in my 2009 review of a collection of the tales of Solomon Kane. It is just not as good as the Conan description Norton cites.

I think you probably could re-craft the Solomon Kane description in the more dense style, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader. I am not a writer of fiction, and I have no illusions about my skill compared to Howard, let alone Norton.