I’ve long been fascinated by the art of communication. While writing is my forte, I’m also fascinated by radio—I was a teen-aged disc jockey for a time at an educational station—and just about all other forms of gasbaggery. One of the things that has struck me most profoundly over the years is how much all the various means of exchanging thoughts and ideas have in common with each other at the basic level.
Over the years I’ve chosen a very few favorite literary passages and other odds and ends of communication and thought long and hard about what makes them work so well. One is an excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, more specifically the arrival of the Midnight Circus Train. Another is the last few paragraphs of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which never leaves me dry-eyed. A third is a lesser-known but still famous scene from book five of the Horatio Hornblower series (Beat to Quarters was the American title) by C.S. Forester in which the protagonist, half-mad from noise and terror and the strain of command in the most brutal sort of combat struggles to maintain his sanity as he (largely by pure force of will) stands for hour after hour in the hot sun with the corpses of his friends and shipmates piling up ever deeper all around him. These are all three of them brilliant gems of the literary art, and each achieved much of their impact using very different techniques. Indeed, they share only a single thing in common.
Not one of them is one syllable longer than they absolutely must be in order to achieve the effect intended. Indeed, each is remarkably short compared to the power they command in the reader’s mind. Not a shred of “non-essential” or “second-rate” material is present to water down the impact of the rest.
Continue reading When You’ve Said Too Much