'But,' said the Medical Man, staring hard at a coal in the fire, 'if Time is really only a fourth dimension of Space, why is it and why has it always been, regarded as something different?'
This is from H G Wells's The Time Machine, and a writing acquaintance on WriteWords questioned whether 'staring hard at the coal in the fire' was really necessary, or just padding. I was intrigued, because this sentence is a shape into which much of my dialogue falls (too much, unless I'm concentrating), so it really appealed to me, and I couldn't see what his problem was with it. Since 'it's scene-setting' is never an adequate reason for padding things out with a bit of description, any more than, 'it's characterisation' is, I started thinking about what would be happening when I actually wrote that scene. Of course I've no idea if Wells's thoughts went like this, but in my case, biro poised, my mind and pen would be going something like this:
'But,' said the Medical Man, [some low-level instinct dictates that the sentence breathes here, and I can see him: he's]
staring [is he just staring? Do I want more specific staring? What's he doing? What does he want? (in the Stanislavskian intention sense). I know: he's try to think it out, he's thinking hard]
hard [what at? 'Stare' is a verb which needs an implied or explicit object, in the literal as well as grammatical sense. Where are they sitting? Okay, and what, from there, could he see? Does he move his head, or is his gaze going that way anyway? He'd withdraw his gaze from the other person, the way you do when you're thinking something out. What do you watch, when you're staring into space? What am I seeing in that room? Well, in a room with a fire, everyone watches the fire, specially if the room's not much lit otherwise.]
at [yes, the fire, but just the fire, or something specific? What can I see? Yes, the contrast you get with a coal fire, the dark coal so black you can hardly see it against and the dimmish glow of the red bits, and the brilliant cracks of yellow-white. And he thinks for quite a long time, so I need this breathe/beat to go on for a while]
a coal in the fire,
[ah, we've got there, and it's taken long enough that his thought has sorted itself out into words and comes out quite coherently]'if Time is really only a fourth dimension of Space, why is it and why has it always been, regarded as something different?
And, in revision, I might wonder whether, instead of looking away from his interlocutor to the fire while he's thinking, he lifts his chin and looks at the arrangement of stuffed birds under a glass dome (contained space arresting the decay of birds over time), or the grandfather clock with the hands going round and the moon-and-stars calendar (measuring time by using space, when space is measured using time). And then, unless I had something going on elsewhere with clocks or birds, I'd probably decide that both of those would take too long and divert the Medicine Man's - and therefore the reader's - consciousness just a bit too much. Though I'll make a note that those things which I now know are in the room might come in handy somewhere else. Yes, I'll settle for the coal - my first instinct often turns out to be right after all - and, yes, it does have its own, slightly more buried symbolic nature: something both of our world and slightly other, because coal fires are homely but coal also embodies (literally) the processes of time, doesn't it, having once been trees. But I won't spell that out, or the ratio of speech to description will get out of balance. If I did, more readers might get that extra layer, but the ones who'd get it without will feel like they're being preached to, and anyway the pace and pattern of the action is more important. I'll just have to hope that even those who aren't conscious of getting it somehow apprehend the numinous, beyond-conscious part.
And quite apart from the fact that picking it apart like this left me feeling slightly breathless at how much work any of us are doing in writing an apparently simple sentence, the question emerge of how much of these extra layers of both meaning and prosody, are actually picked up by readers who aren't writers.
I think it's akin to people listening to music. The experience is an intuitive one, in that listening isn't, fundamentally, a process of following conscious, logical steps, even though music is the most ruthlessly logical of the arts in its structure. But whether or not they could articulate in words the technical details of what they're hearing, almost everyone hears the tune, most pick up on whether it's major or minor, rather fewer are alert to a key change, fewer still pick up on the different quality of, say G minor and E Flat minor, and fewer still could do you a Schenkerian tonal analysis of it. But just because most listeners don't consciously think, 'Ah, C major-happy-and-calm; and oh! A-minor-sad-and-solemn; and perk up into A-major-happy-and-spikey, and into F-sharp-minor-sad-and-bitter,' absolutely doesn't mean that those things don't have those effects. (Apologies to all musicians - theory is a gaping hole in my musical education). As you become a more experienced listener in a particular genre and style, however, you do hear, say, more of the separate things which are going on in a choral fugue by Bach, or a Shostakovich symphony, even if, like me, you couldn't begin to explain them.
And similarly, I would contend that our first experience of any act of creative writing is intuitive. When you're working on a first draft, as I've been suggesting, it's instinct that drives the pen. When you revise (or when you're critiquing the work of others), it's your instinct which tells you that a sentence clunks or a plot creaks, and then you start to unpick it logically, just as a great scientist intuits what's happening, and then sets about turning that intuition into the language of diagrams or mathematics or whatever.
Not that such intuition means that any old one of us can be Einstein or Eliot, because as my worked example suggests, rationality is right in there too, working away, so your conscious brain had better get practising too. Many passionate readers are turned off by plodding, rational unpicking of intuitively apprehended books at school, just as very beginner writers find it acutely uncomfortable to do the same to their writing. If they're keen and lucky, both then go through an uncomfortable ugly duckling stage while they integrate the operation of their intuition and their rationality, and find the right scale for it: the ever-cycling process of writer-editor, intuit-rationalise. For some the unit of cycling is a sentence, for some it's a novel, but either way, the more integrated the two are, the more smoothly they actually operate simultaneously, and the more likely you are to get it right(ish) in the first draft. And once you've shed those scruffy brown feathers and learnt to take off and steer, and find your way and glide, you can fly anywhere.