In Faking Shapely Fiction, Michael Byers splits written descriptions into two camps: potatoes and vodka. Potatoes are the tangible, observable facts of a scene, while vodka is the meaning the narrator distills from them.
For example, a scene from The Great Gatsby when Nick first meets Jordan Baker, vodka in italics:
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.
Typically short story writers will have a higher ratio of vodka, perhaps a potatoes:vodka ratio of 2:1 or even 1:1. In novels we see a far bigger pile of potatoes assembled before the vodka is distilled, often getting 5:1 or 10:1. GRRM’s works, being exceptionally long novels and part of one gargantuan story, have potatoes piled higher than The Wall with distilled spirits few and far between. He can seem to go on for full chapters without a hint of vodka. And, by using several point of view characters rather than an omniscient narrator, the story is inherently limited in the amount of distillation that can happen.
Note that this isn’t a problem though, it’s a style. Lots of potatoes and little vodka doesn’t produce a bad effect, it produces a different effect.
A style with lots of potatoes and little vodka shifts mental labor onto the reader. It asks them to do more of the interpretive work, to distill the vodka themselves.
Take this scene after the Hand’s Tourney when Sandor escorts Sansa back to the castle. This immediately follows him confiding in her the story of Gregor burning his face:
The rasping voice trailed off. He squatted silently before her, a hulking black shape shrouded in the night, hidden from her eyes. Sansa could hear his ragged breathing. She was sad for him, she realized. Somehow, the fear had gone away.
The silence went on and on, so long that she began to grow afraid once more, but she was afraid for him now, not for herself. She found his massive shoulder with her hand. “He was no true knight,” she whispered to him.
The Hound threw back his head and roared. Sansa stumbled back, away from him, but he caught her arm. “No,” he growled at her, “no, little bird, he was no true knight.”
The rest of the way into the city, Sandor Clegane said not a word. He led her to where the carts were waiting, told a driver to take them back to the Red Keep, and climbed in after her. They rode in silence through the King’s Gate and up torchlit city streets. He opened the postern door and led her into the castle, his burned face twitching and his eyes brooding, and he was one step behind her as they climbed the tower stairs. He took her safe all the way to the corridor outside her bedchamber.
“Thank you, my lord,” Sansa said meekly.
The Hound caught her by the arm and leaned close. “The things I told you tonight,” he said, his voice sounding even rougher than usual. “If you ever tell Joffrey … your sister, your father … any of them …”
“I won’t,” Sansa whispered. “I promise.”
It was not enough. “If you ever tell anyone,” he finished, “I’ll kill you.”
Potato, potato, potato, potato, potato. The only hint of vodka comes right at the end: It was not enough.
Early on, Sansa is not a particularly observant, contemplative, or introspective character, so it’s fitting that her scenes lack much distillation. Later though, especially after Ned’s execution and the cruelty she suffers at Joffrey’s hand, we get more interpretive work out of her on the page.
In this scene with Sandor though, with so much un-distilled potatoes to work with, the reader has a lot of interpretive work to do. How does Sandor feel about telling the story to Sansa? Is he happy someone knows, or does he regret it? Is he ashamed of sharing an emotional moment with someone he thinks of as a vapid little bird just repeating back the pretty words she was trained to say? And what does this scene mean for Sansa? She goes from fearing the Hound to pitying him, but what of his threat at the end? Did she want to know, or would she prefer not knowing?
As a reader, especially in a longer work like a novel, we don’t want to be spoon fed the meaning of each and every scene. Shorter works, such as short stories or short novels like The Great Gatsby, tend to leave the reader’s work for the end. But, novels do well when they ask the reader to stretch their intellectual muscles along the way.
Vodka For Special Occasions
Whenever an author shifts their writing mechanics, they draw more attention to that moment of the story. One of the oldest tricks is to have several long, complex sentences punctuated by a short, direct sentence at the end of the paragraph. The sudden shift in sentence structure causes the reader to zero in on that moment, linger on it, and take note of its importance.
Similarly, a series of long, physical, potatoey descriptions punctuated by finally seeing the scene distilled through the eyes of a character tells the reader to pay special attention — something different is happening here. A great example comes from the Red Wedding. GRRM tends to be more generous with the vodka in the Catelyn scenes; she’s a particularly contemplative character with lots of internal thoughts on the page. This moment does something different though:
“Mercy!” Catelyn cried, but horns and drums and the clash of steel smothered her plea. Ser Ryman buried the head of his axe in Dacey’s stomach. By then men were pouring in the other doors as well, mailed men in shaggy fur cloaks with steel in their hands. Northmen! She took them for rescue for half a heartbeat, till one of them struck the Smalljon’s head off with two huge blows of his axe. Hope blew out like a candle in a storm.
Hope blew out like a candle in a storm. GRRM’s writing tends to be very literal, so the injection of a metaphor into this scene catches our attention. We’ve had the iron ringmail shirts, men stabbed, and crossbow bolts put into Catelyn, Robb, and more than a dozen others. But, it’s this metaphorical candle blowing out that causes us to pause, and in that pause we stop flying through the action and finally take a moment to understand that this is real, and Robb and Catelyn are about to die.
It’s such a tiny moment in a whirlwind of action, but it focuses everything to deliver the emotional gut punch the scene needs to deliver.