“When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.
“His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character. On Sundays he was a man of misty views, rather given to postponing, and hampered by his best clothes and umbrella….”
So opens Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd.
I read—and enjoyed—some of Hardy’s novels years ago, but this wasn’t one of them. A while back, I saw a trailer for the current movie version and decided I wanted to see it. Before I made it to the movie, I happened across the book in Barnes & Noble. I ended up reading the first chapter (only six pages) standing in the aisle of the book store. A couple of days later, having read no further in the book—I wanted to finish another book first—I went to see the movie. While I enjoyed the film, I also found it somewhat disappointing, because, for all its beauty, it didn’t give me what even the first chapter of the novel did.
In his review in Variety, critic Scott Foundas writes that “the generally faithful adaptation benefits from a solid cast and impeccable production values, though the passions that drive Hardy’s characters remain more stated than truly felt.” In part, this lack of feeling might be said to be due to the difficulty of adapting a novel like Hardy’s, which as Foundas later notes “has five main characters united by an omniscient narrator who not only knows the inner workings of their hearts and minds, but editorializes on their behavior as he goes along.”
Such narration violates all the current novel writing advice. Certainly Hardy shows us things, but he tells us a lot as well. And he doesn’t start with action at all. Those opening paragraphs that so pulled me in are the beginning of almost three pages of description of Gabriel Oak. Three pages. Of description.
But, at least for me, it’s compelling reading. Partly because that description both tells and shows me who Gabriel Oak is, and partly because the language is so wonderful. Here’s my favorite bit:
“His height and breadth would have been sufficient to make his presence imposing, had they been exhibited with due consideration. But there is a way some men have, rural and urban alike, for which the mind is more responsible than flesh and sinew: it is a way of curtailing their dimensions by their manner of showing them. And from a quiet modesty that would have become a vestal, which seemed continually to impress upon him that he had no great claim on the world’s room, Oak walked unassumingly, and with a faintly perceptible bend, yet distinct from a bowing of the shoulders.”
These 102 words paint a picture of Oak, but they also give us more than a picture. They invest the picture with depth, dimensionality. While the characters in Thomas Vinterberg’s film each demonstrate their complexity through their actions, I missed the experience of plumbing those emotional depths.
Part of what seems missing is perhaps due to the director’s choices (see another review here), but some is a result of the difference in media, the difference between words and moving and talking pictures. Films convey character primarily through action and dialogue, while novels, through their narration, allow us entry to the POV character(s)’ thoughts and feelings. But, it seems to me, that much of the advice given to writers today encourages us to write as if we were writing for film. Show, don’t tell. Limit description; get to the action. Structure your story using a beat sheet, a tool borrowed from screenwriting.
All of those techniques help us tell exciting, fast-paced stories, which are very popular in our fast-paced world. But they put aside the pleasures to be found in slowing down for passages of description like Hardy’s: the pleasures of exploring character through narration, the pleasures of language—of a well-constructed, complicated sentence, or of a comparison that prompts a new awareness. Here’s another example, from chapter 15 of Hardy’s novel, where he describes an aged malt maker: “Indeed, he seemed to approach the grave as a hyperbolic curve approaches a straight line—less directly as he got nearer, till it was doubtful if he would ever reach it at all.”
I’m glad I saw the movie version of Far From the Madding Crowd. It is beautifully filmed, and the actors play their parts well, inasmuch as the adaptation allows. But reading the novel is fleshing out the characters for me in a different way, adding shading and depth and awareness. And I find myself rereading sentences purely for the pleasure of the language.
No, I won’t be trying to write Hardyesque passages of description in my novel draft, but his use of language is a spur to enhance my own.
What have you read—or watched—lately that made you want to write differently?
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I am the author of the New Adult/Young Adult urban fantasy series, The Light-Bringer:
I have also contributed stories (one fictional and one true) to the following volumes: