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Inhabiting a Work of Prose

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

January 2011

". . .live inside the novel for both the writer and the reader."

In reviews on the back of a jacket, aside from “lucid,” and “scintillating,” I often see something about “this is a work of fiction you inhabit.” What does it mean to inhabit a work of fiction? Reading Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz, (Vintage Books, N.Y., 2007) I thought I got a better sense of what it meant to live inside the novel for both the writer and the reader.

". . .description was emotional."

One of the factors that made the reader feel that he was inhabiting, actually living in the world of the book was that description was emotional. Here’s an example from p. 9:

“…and the red neon sign that Tod’s father had installed in headier days had been reduced to attrition by the first three letters, leaving a pitiful air of unfulfilled expectations.”

He could have said that the sign lacked a letter. That would have been descriptive. We would have had a visual image. Instead, we have a visual and emotional image because of the phrase “pitiful air” and “unfulfilled expectations.”

". . .other character’s reaction. . ."

Schwartz not only describes the environment with emotion, but he’s keen on the nuances of expression in even minor characters such as with this gas station attendant on p. 10:

“The young man looked up from his reading, but didn’t stir from his stool. He was younger than I thought, with lingering acne and an attempt at a goatee. He had shuffled his feet and gone shy in the presence of my lovely wife, but before me his eyes betrayed a quick, hard judgment followed by withdrawal; his remove was daunting.”

Here Schwartz doesn’t just describe his characters gestures and leave it to the reader to figure out what is going on, which is common in contemporary literature. He also interprets the significance of the gestures in the attendant’s “hard judgment followed by withdrawal,” and he gets in the other character’s reaction to it—“daunting.”

"Metaphors . . . directs the reader not only in what to see, but what to feel. . ."

As writers, we’re always told “nix the adverbs,” but when one of the characters, Ethan, gives a long, despairing sigh,” we get a better sense of what’s going on. There are many types of sighs after all: a sigh of satisfaction, a sigh following pain relief like sighing after a belch from a full meal. If you can think of any other sighs, let me know. But it’s a pleasure to find such a rare specific definition in modern fiction. (Remind me of this the next time I’m campaigning against adverbs.)

Metaphors also take you into the setting in a way that, without being didactic, directs the reader not only in what to see, but what to feel, in this case, fear.

On p. 11, Schwartz tells us, “It (the car) broke from the trees like an apparition.”

Here, (p. 21) the relationship is revealed in just one adjective and one verb—“dead and piled during an encounter between a husband and wife, Schwartz writes:

“…the dead minutes piled up between us.”

Metaphors make us see the eeriness within the ordinary as in this description of a little girl on p. 51.

“Emma’s white underpants and white face and luminous hair shone out of the darkened doorway; her sleeping T-shirt was navy blue and made her torso nearly invisible, as if some creature had taken a bite out of her in her dreams.”

". . .create writing that the reader can inhabit."

Writers that reach for the strongest metaphors get you past their writing and inside their world.

“It was just a school gym with fluorescent lighting harsh as a microwave.” (p. 211.) “The very sight now—just a few inches of the boy’s blue carpet bathed in steel-like tones from the windowed light—made her irrationally afraid, as if it signified the presence of an intruder in her house.”

The metaphor is exaggerated, but that’s what makes it work emotionally—the inner reaction to the woman’s dead son’s carpet is the same shock she’d have to coming upon an intruder in her house.

To create writing that the reader can inhabit:

Don’t be afraid to use adverbs no matter what your writing teacher says. They make an action, a gesture, or an adjective specific, allowing the reader to really get it. Don’t be afraid to actually name the feeling. Let the landscape be lonely or the sky be stricken if that’s what works. Exaggerate your metaphors. Often the more you push the comparison, take it to its greatest height, the more true it makes the scene.

Invite the reader to move into the world you’re creating.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro




Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.