(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“Every character is sufficiently vivid and interesting for his function; every scene is just long enough, just rich enough; every metaphor is polished; no symbol stands out crudely from its matrix of events, yet no resonance goes completely unheard, too slyly muffled by the literal. Though we read the work again and again, we can never seem to get to the bottom of it.” John Gardner

“When one Southern character speaks, regardless of his station in life, an echo of all Southern life is heard.” Flannery O’Connor

“The connotation of a word is that part of its meaning which has grown by usage around its core meaning, or denotation, and is therefore not discoverable at a glance.” Jacques Barzun

“To learn connotations, read widely.” Jacques Barzun

“In texture alone there is no process; there is only effect.” John Gardner

“I side with those who maintain that not poetry alone but even the flattest of flat prose consists of words plus echoes. Some of these echoes are fixed (and recognized) in idioms, cliches, and dead metaphors; others exist more vagrantly, in literature, in capricious habit, sometimes in mere sounds.” Jacques Barzun

“Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.” William Zinsser

“In the essayist’s style we might write, for instance, ‘The man in the doorway was large and apparently ill at ease—so large that he had to stoop a little and draw in his elbows.’ The poetic style can run harder at its effects: ‘He filled the doorway, awkward as a horse.’ Both styles, needless to say, can be of use. One builds its world up slowly and completely, as Tolstoy does in Anna Karenina, where very few metaphors or similes appear; the other lights up its imaginary world by lightning flashes.” John Gardner

“Every word, even the dullest and most frivolous, makes waves, calls up dark, half-unconscious associations which poetic context can illuminate.” John Gardner

“He must work out major details of characterization and think out what some of his major images imply (the extent, that is, to which they function as symbols).” John Gardner

“If the first time our hero meets a given character it occurs in a graveyard, the character’s next appearance will carry with it some residue of the graveyard setting.” John Gardner

“Our deepest sense of characterization comes from symbolic association.” John Gardner

“We frequently learn about fictional characters as we identify people in the game called Smoke, or sometimes called Essences. In this game the player who is it thinks of some famous personage living or dead, such as Gandhi, then tells the other players, ‘I am a dead Asian,’ or whatever. The players, in order, try to guess the name of the personage by asking such questions as ‘What kind of smoke are you?’ ‘What kind of weather are you?’ ‘What kind of animal are you?’ ‘What part of the human anatomy?’ And so on. The player who is it answers not in terms of what the personage might have liked to smoke, what weather he might have preferred, etc. but what the personage would be if he were incarnated not as a human being but as, say, a certain kind of smoke—cigarette, pipe, or more specifically, Virginia Slims, White Owl, or Prince Albert pipe tobacco. As they ask their questions, the players develop a powerful sense of the personality they’re seeking, and when finally, on the basis of the information they’ve been given, someone makes the right guess, the result is likely to be an orgasmic sense of relief. Obviously the game cannot be played with the intellect; it depends on metaphoric intuition. Yet anyone who plays the game with good players will discover that the metaphors that describe the personage whose name is being sought have, at least cumulatively, a remarkable precision.” John Gardner

“There is obviously no way to play this game [smoke] with the reasoning facility, since it depends on unconscious associations or intuition; and what the game proves conclusively for everyone playing is that our associations are remarkably similar. . . . The game proves more dramatically than any argument can suggest the mysterious rightness of good metaphor—the one requisite for the poet, Aristotle says, that cannot be taught.” John Gardner

“In fiction, characterization by symbolic association can be infinitely more precise than it can ever be in the game [smoke], partly because (in the final draft) the metaphors are carefully considered, and partly because we are dealing with a consistently good player.” John Gardner

“To sharpen or intensify a characterization, a writer makes use of metaphor and reinforcing background—weather, physical objects, animals—details which either mirror character or give character something to react to.” John Gardner

“The writer may use metaphor [simile] directly, as when he tells us Paris is like a dapper, slightly foolish fox, or he may work for symbolic association in subtler ways. He may place a character in the weather that metaphorically expresses his nature, so that unwittingly we make a connection between the gloom of Menalos and the gloom of the weather at his back. Or the writer may subtly incline us to identify Helen’s character with the elegantly wrought knife with which she carves.” John Gardner

“To say the word crate to a native English speaker is to summon up an image of a crate and, with it, the natural background of that image, which is a different background from that summoned up by casque or trunk or cube. To say that a character is built like a crate is to suggest far more than just the character’s shape: it is to hint at his personality, his station in life, even his behavior.” John Gardner

Landing on the word ‘upright’ I find it shades toward ‘righteous,’ as in ‘upright conduct,’ and his helplessness takes overtones.” John Gardner

“The first chapters of many great novels bring in an amazing amount of material that will be, in one way or another, with variations, repeated throughout.” Ursula Le Guin

“The similarity of this incremental repetition of word, phrase, image, and event in prose to recapitulation and development in musical structure is real and deep.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The purpose of metaphors, or comparisons, is epistemological. If I describe a spread of snow and I say, ‘The snow was white like sugar,’ the comparison conveys a sensory focus of the whiteness of the snow. It is more colorful than merely saying ‘The snow was white.’ If I describe sugar, I can do it in reverse: ‘The sugar in the bowl was white like snow.’ This conveys a better impression of sugar than if I merely said: ‘The sugar was white. . . . The operative principle here is that of abstraction. If you describe only one object, in concrete terms, it is difficult to convey a sensuous impression: you tell about the object, but you do not show it. The introduction of another concrete with the same attribute makes the two together give a clear sensuous image—it isolates the attribute by making the reader’s mind form an abstraction. The reader’s lightning-like visualization of the whiteness of snow and the whiteness of sugar makes that whiteness stand out in his mind as if he had seen it.” Ayn Rand

“When you select a comparison, you must consider not only the exact attribute you want to feature, but also the connotations that will be raised in the reader’s mind. . . . The old bromide ‘Her lips were like ripe cherries’ was not bad when said the first time. Cherries connote something red, sensuous, glistening, and attractive. But suppose I said: ‘Her lips were like ripe tomatoes.’ Tomatoes are also red and shining, but the comparison sounds ridiculous because the connotations are wrong. Ripe tomatoes make you think of something squashy, of the kitchen, of an unappetizing salad. The things connected with the concept of a vegetable are not romantic.” Ayn Rand

“If you want something to sound attractive, be sure to make your comparison galmorous and attractive. If you want to destroy something, do the opposite.” Ayn Rand

“The dialogue, the pauses, the expressions, have to form the underlying landscape: the thoughts, emotions, currents, that shift and gender the surface.” Ulf Wolf

“What I call the ‘auditory imagination’ is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and brining something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current, and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilized mentality.” T.S. Eliot

“No scene can be put into a novel, and read by the reader, without coloring the reader’s mind from that point on to the end; all the preceding scenes are the parents and ancestors of the next one. The experience of fiction is accumulative as well as sequential.” William Sloane

“There is the apt use of connotation which, when coupled with right rhythm, is the prerequisite of all good prose, prose that says what the author thinks and feels, besides being pleasant to read.” Jacques Barzun

“A certain image or idea informs a scene: The memory of it colors the meaning of the scene, gives it force, spins it with irony.” Philip Gerard

“Every literal action should be ballasted with an underlying resonance that plays upon memories of other moments in the novel. Just below the surface of the plot, triggered by the images of what is actually happening at the moment, the reader should feel a resonance like overtones in music, a sympathetic vibration of themes. The same chord struck in different octaves, in major and minor keys, echoing through memory, calling up associations of other incidents earlier in the novel.” Philip Gerard

“That’s what narrative is: a chain of deliberate memories.” Philip Gerard

“. . . the sea is to be heard all through it.” Virginia Woolf

“I hope to have kept the sound of the sea and the birds, dawn and garden subconsciously present, during their work under ground.” Virginia Woolf

“Between the sentences, apart from the story, a little shape of some kind builds itself up.” Virginia Woolf