A family is sitting in their living room after just having finished a meal together. The mother is on a sofa with her daughter of twelve next to her, while the father is sitting in an armchair. Their youngest child, a boy, is stretched out on a rug in front of the coffee table. They’re all watching a movie when the station goes into a commercial.
There could be dozens of questions popping into a reader’s mind after getting through those opening lines, but they’re the wrong questions. Yes, wrong, an absolute statement, the very kind that should never be made, but you know there’s an exception to every rule, and well, this is it. But don’t worry, there’s a why, and it’s that these questions, and any other ones related to the plot, conflict, etc. of this story, are irrelevant because no reader’s going to care enough even to ask.
No one’s going to care about anything because it’s empty; there’s nothing except four people watching TV in a room. What about the post-war, Leave It To Beaver nuclear family dynamic? A stretch, but even if it was that, or a cliché of that, the passage is still void of anything for a reader to grab. There aren’t characters for a reader to know, no world for readers to enter. There’s nothing, not a single detail.
“Men who wish to know about the world must learn about it in its particular details” (Heraclitus, n.d.). It shouldn’t be too much of a leap to assume a writer aims to create a world the reader wants to know. And if you’ll buy that, then the trick becomes getting that ‘want’ to develop inside the reader. A good place to start with this might be, ‘you can’t want to know what you don’t even know.’ Cryptic? It’s not meant to be. And if you think about it, if the goal of a story is to get a reader into the characters and their lives, then it has to be a good idea to give that reader access to the world holding these elements.
Who doesn’t love the beach?
All right then, Brian is walking on a beach. Stop right there. A reader was just given three things; a character, an action, and a location. The walking can be ignored, for now, everyone knows what walking is and at the moment it’s the least important of the trio. But this Brian, he’s obviously a character in the story and there’s no need to get too deep into him in the first sentence of the story either. Character development is something a reader naturally expects, but there’s no need to laundry-list him right off the go. It’ll come as the story unfolds, a reader will wait for it, but only if they’re given a place to wait. And ‘a beach’ isn’t going to cut it. Steinbeck (2000):
“The beach was yellow sand, but at the water’s edge a rubble of shell and algae took its place. Fiddler crabs bubbled and sputtered in their holes in the sand, and in the shallows little lobsters popped in and out of their tiny homes in the rubble and sand. The sea bottom was rich with crawling and swimming and growing things. The brown algae waved in the gentle currents and the green eel grass swayed and little sea horses clung to its stems. Spotted botete, the poison fish, lay on the bottom in the eel-grass beds, and the bright-colored swimming crabs scampered over them.” (p. 15)
Now that’s a beach. No allusion to a clichéd archetype and no reliance on the reader to create ‘a beach’ from memory like our clichéd family scene from the opening did. Here Steinbeck has created a space unique to the story he’s telling, and by doing so has provided an environmental concreteness to facilitate a reader’s entry into the physicality of the narrative. On top of that, his beach doesn’t prevent a reader from bringing in their own associations either. Who knows, maybe one reader had lobster for supper last night and wonders where in the world do lobsters live so close to the beach. And that is definitely not being cute, because the writer also mentions, “Spotted botete, the poison fish…” (Steinbeck, 2000, p. 15). Combining these details allows the reader to place the beach geographically near the warmer water of the tropics. Therefore, not only has the passage given the reader a unique place to enter, but by gently including a few factual specifics in the description it has both positioned the beach geographically and lent it a sense of realism.
The story is somewhere, but where am I?
Using the environment to place a story for a reader is one thing, but it’s not the only thing a description of an environment can do. Steinbeck (2000):
“The uncertain air that magnified some things and blotted out others hung over the whole Gulf so that all sights were unreal and vision could not be trusted; so that sea and land had the sharp clarities and the vagueness of a dream. Thus it might be that the people of the Gulf trust things of the spirit and things of the imagination, but they do not trust their eyes to show them distance or clear outline or an optical exactness. Across the estuary from the town one section of mangrove clump was a hazy black-green blob. Part of the far shore disappeared into a shimmer that looked like water. There was no certainty in seeing, no proof that what you saw was there or was not there. And the people of the Gulf expected all places were that way, and it was not strange to them.” (p. 16)
This description, a page after the previous quote, works to expand a reader’s view by leaving the beach and introducing the world seen out over the water. Normal enough, sure, but then Steinbeck goes a step further and uses a quality taken from this environment to introduce a character trait of the people who live there, and now he’s got you.
For a reader, this observational chain of evidence will be believed because it’s a continuation of the description that started a page before. Remember the beach? A reader does, and they believed it, still do, most feel like they’re standing on the beach right now. And you know people, there’s no way they’ll want to contradict themselves now.
It’s easy enough to guess the author is letting the reader know these people of the Gulf are uneducated in the school sense of the word and rather draw on nature and its laws to understand the world in which they live. However, later in the text, Steinbeck goes a step further and uses a series of reactions to a specific event to illustrate exactly what kind of value the text is putting on this type of reality creation system.
Nature is Nurture
The main character’s child, poisoned by a bite, is refused treatment by the city’s only doctor. So there’s the down, and the up comes when the main character, Kino, finds a pearl of enormous wealth, which he naturally refuses to sell for the low price he’s offered in the city. But wouldn’t you know it, the whole village knows of Kino’s new windfall before he even gets back home. “The neighbors … would watch Kino and Juana very closely to see whether riches turned their heads, as riches turned all people’s heads … (they) knew why the doctor had come … he was very well understood.” (Steinbeck, 2000, p. 34). Here the text explicitly lays out the reactions for a reader, however, in the next paragraph, the origins of their logic get flipped back to nature. Steinbeck (2000):
“Out in the estuary a tight woven school of small fishes glittered and broke water to escape a school of great fishes that drove to eat them. And in the houses the people could hear the swish of the small ones and the bouncing splash of the great ones as the slaughter went on.” (p. 16)
Here Steinbeck is highlighting the doctor’s greed, and his predation, through the presentation of yet another environmental observation. But this time it’s not something just for the reader, it’s for the entire village, and by extension, this final environmental observation becomes the point of the story. Big fish eat little fish, it doesn’t matter what they do because in the end little fish get eaten. It’s natural, isn’t it? Feels that way for the villagers, and feels that way for a reader too because the text created a world, brought both groups into that world, and then most importantly allowed them to discover the story via the environment together.
And now let’s just see, do you remember who was sitting on the sofa with the mother?
Steinbeck, J. (2000). The Pearl. Penguin Classics.