I’m plucking daisies on the moon with this one.
I first heard this concept in a behind the scenes clip for the movie Inception discussing a single line in the script which stated two characters would fight in a rotating hallway. One line on a page became a massive engineering feat costing millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours work. Yet it totals maybe a minute to a minute thirty seconds of screen time for the film when stitched together. The scene (as written) was described as an Unfilmable.
It’s an intriguing proposition for any director. “How do I translate these words to film?”
Indeed. How can a mind attach sights and sounds to mere suggestions of such sensations? The unique difficulty taken up by the director is their practical methods of capturing the images in their heads with cameras and actors and computers and sets. I don’t envy them.
My job as a writer is free of such constraints because what I write on a page need not become anything but a thought in someone’s head or a tingling down their spine. To paraphrase George R.R. Martin on the HBO’s Game of Thrones version of the iron throne, “They couldn’t build it as big as I wrote it because it’d be too heavy for the floor to bear.”
All a writer need do is describe an object or character or scenery or what have you and their job is done. But like a Lovecraftian witness to an eldritch horror, we come to the writer’s unique burden, how do you describe something you can’t describe?
And here we fall on the spikes of Intangibles.
It’s like writing down a vivid dream when you wake up. One idea about a villain’s smile; a harsh thing spread thin from ear to ear without laugh lines — as if it wasn’t a mouth. The translucent lips open without pulling on the adjacent skin, though they weren’t connected. One gets the fear that the head pulled back and the smile opened to a flat 180 degrees as if to release some massive part of the villain’s being coiled within the body, or to pull something equally large inside.
But, inevitably, that transient, momentary thought which comes with elation and an inflated ego falls onto the page as, “He had a thin mouth, a long thin mouth. It moved on its own. It gave Jessica a great fear to look at it.”
Just juggle two handfuls of sand if you’ve never tried it.
If you’ve any transferable skills to writing (which is all of them) that involve the visual arts, I’d recommend sketching up the face quick with extra detail on the smile as it comes to you. Even if you aren’t adept in drawing, a rough sketch holds the image so your brain power isn’t spent recalling what it should evoke and the proper words to evoke it.
To take this further, record some background noise from a city street or a hiking trail. Grab a photo and tape it on the wall at eye level. Recreate the smells of your childhood with potpourri, candles, sea shells, and the foods you ate.
Alternatively, find a mirror. I’ve found this especially useful for subtle tells and details in facial expressions. What’s the difference between perplexed and flummoxed? Find it in the crinkling of the nose, the widening of the nostrils, a parted mouth, a deep line where the eyebrows nearly meet, the wobbling whites of your eyes.
The next tier of this pyramid is describing a feeling without the right words in place. Anyone overcome with romance or pulled over by a cop with an undue shot of adrenaline bulging your eyes knows the problems of expressing yourself.
Personally I take the slug clean through the shoulder and write down the first awful thing that arrives to my mind. There’s nothing to fear after that for there’s nothing worse I could put down on the page. Then I write the second worst idea and then the third. Whatever better thoughts I’d have won’t get shuffled in the deck evaluating which sentences were more reflective of what I wanted to say and which were just awful. By the end it’s an A to ZZZ multi choice exam. Don’t repeat it too often or face choice fatigue’s numbing embrace.
And I wish there were more practical solutions to this problem but the central conceit of writing fiction is that making up a series of words and putting them onto a page is an impractical exercise. If it were so precise that we could write word to word, opening to end without erasing anything and come out rose water cleaned, there wouldn’t be anything to master in the art. Every novel written by every self-assured plebeian would be as good as the last one you put down.
Much of the time you consult your basic formulas: Hero’s Journey, rising and falling action, beginning, middle, end, character dreams, subtext, etc. But sometimes you have to go on instinct and be confident enough in your abilities to write something (perhaps not great, perhaps not even good) just passable when you’ve reached the end.
Intangibles (describe something you can’t describe)… It’s a prima facie absurd. Embrace it.
I started this with a freeform, poetic line: I’m plucking daisies on the moon with this one. I don’t know what that really means. Impossibility? Serenity? Don Quixote level disillusionment?
I can tell you I like the line. I think I might like to sit on the moon one day, either with a flower grown there or with one I brought in my pocket, and sit down on a smooth rock and stare at the world spin as I carefully plucked the petals — watching them drift slowly to the surface. Wouldn’t know just why, but, I’d be happy. You don’t need too many questions when you’re happy.
Miles from nowhere Not a soul in sight Oh yeah, but it's alright — Cat Stevens