The Trick of Particularity

In a dream, Morna Anya and Delotha Sil' escape the clutches of Argannon.

In a dream, Morna Anya and Delotha Sil' escape the clutches of Argannon.

For writers, so much can be learned about their style simply by looking at the first paragraph of their book. That first paragraph can reveal many things, to hopefully include aspects of brilliant technique. In The Hobbit, although the hobbit is one of Tolkien’s great artistic inventions, he chose to start by describing not a hobbit but a hobbit’s dwelling. We quickly come to know a lot about hobbits as we go in the front door, down the hall, and into the hobbit’s cozy den of comfort.

For my second book, Shadow in the Flame, I begin by describing an evil character, the Lor Shys:

The black tower of Urth’ Goroth stood malignant under the night sky now made darker by smoke and ash from the underground forges. The air was difficult to breath, hot, and dry, making the Drueger a place where few creatures could survive for long that is except for one evil beast, the one called Lor Shys by the brood, or demon worm. Long had the creature lived there; it had been said for ages, far more years than any living being could recall. As the brood surmised, the creature was as old as time itself and had probably been born of the fire and chaos that had first created the world.

Besides the choice of what to describe, notice the specificity of the small number of details. We place the character in darkness, within the horrors of a smoke and ash environment. We experience how difficult the environment is, and how perhaps, the character has lived from the very beginning of time, surviving through fire and chaos. Later, we learn how the character finds its way through "a murky and dank labyrinth of confusing and distorted passages." You do not know that the character is evil but you get a sense of it from the description. These are the tricks of fiction. Here, I have selected a small number of details, and somehow, this convinces the reader that there is a “real” place with believable characters doing things of importance. The odder or more precise the detail, the more convincing.

This is called by some the trick of particularity. Dante mastered it, as did other writers. Why is there a lamppost in the woods in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia when the Penvensie children arrive for the first time? And why do we soon spy a faun carrying an umbrella? Something about it offers a concreteness to the scene. And we start to see it in our mind’s eye.

It is the writer's responsibility to guide the mind's eye using the trick of particularity.