Enargia: The Ancient Art of Conjuring a Scene
You all know what enargia is even if you’d never heard the word. Enargia is a Greek word used in the art of rhetoric to describe how an author conjures a picture with all the associated emotions to charm a reader and hook them into a scene.
Let’s look at an example, which was a best-seller in its day and still does pretty well over a hundred years after first publication.
“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”
“From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid, jade-faced painters of Tokyo who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion. The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive. The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
That did it. But how?
Oscar Wilde creates vivid visual images of beautiful things, the honey-sweet and honey-colored laburnum and the tussore-silk curtains. These visuals move too, the laburnum trembles, and the shadows of the birds flit. We imagine the column of smoke rising from Lord Wooton’s innumerable cigarettes. It’s not just still life; it’s cinema.
Wilde brings in the other senses: we smell the perfume of roses, the lilacs, and the pink-flowering thorn. From afar, we hear the dim roar of London.
Also, there’s a person in the picture. The presence of Lord Wooton engages those hard-wired parts of us that are always assessing and assaying other folks.
We can’t help being curious; we’re involved.
I think the use of metaphors in this piece is critical. All humans use metaphors: this thing you don’t know, well it’s like the thing you do know.
It’s like Jaws meets The Exorcist meets Lost in Space…
However horrible a story based on that premise might be, the metaphor gives you an idea of what it would be like.
Metaphors don’t even need to make sense. In fact, the odder they are, often the harder they strike.
“She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.”
That, of course, is also an example of the rhetorical device, synesthesia, as is:
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like victory.”
That’s a famous misquote, but it’s also synesthesia, and enargia.
All this is enargia.
“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, Drives my green age”
Flowers don’t have fuses, green or otherwise, and they are not obviously driven, except in a loose sense by sunlight. But still, it’s enargia. We are there. We feel the force. We see the green.
Let’s look at another more extended example of enargia, again, excellently achieved.
“The Thames is a filthy beast: it winds through London like a snake, or a sea serpent. All the rivers flow into it, the Fleet and the Tyburn and the Neckinger, carrying all the filth and scum and waste, the bodies of cats and dogs and the bones of sheep and pigs down into the brown water of the Thames, which carries them east into the estuary and from there into the North Sea and oblivion.”
“It is raining in London. The rain washes the dirt into the gutters, and it swells streams into rivers, rivers into powerful things. The rain is a noisy thing, splashing and pattering and rattling the rooftops. If it is clean water as it falls from the skies it only needs to touch London to become dirt, to stir dust and make it mud.”
Down To A Sunless Sea, Neil Gaiman
I smell the dead bodies. I see them. I hear the pattering and gurgling of the downpour. I’m right there on a dark, rainy London night, just as I was in Lord Henry Wotton’s drawing-room.
It’s pretty simple. Evoke all the senses in writing. Spend some time crafting your descriptions. Add movement into the scene. Involve a person or an animal — Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things begins with a wonderful background of rotting jackfruit and black crows, and it still works.
Use metaphors, throw in the odd synesthesia, but probably not more than one. Easy with that.
A while back, I heard an interesting discussion between Dr Iain McGilchrist and Dr Jordan Peterson about the functions of the different brain hemispheres. You can read it here.
Peterson is essentially interviewing McGilchrist about McGillchrist’s theory about the functions of the two hemispheres of your brain. McGillchrist says that one brain hemisphere is dominant; that’s the right hemisphere. He calls the right hemisphere ‘The Master’. The left he calls ‘The Emissary’.
According to McGillchrist, the right hemisphere generates exploratory scenarios. It creates imaginary scenes that we use to test out possibilities. For them to be effective, we need them to produce the emotions we would feel if we were in these places for real.
This ability to create worlds ‘as-if’ that we can explore in imagination is important for making fiction work.
McGilchrist believes there is an evolutionary purpose to this, and he may be right, but we can’t help generating scenes in our imagination: past, future and even fantastical ones on Mars. Then, after creating them, we usually worry about them!
I’m guessing that if you’re reading this, you are human. If you are human, you will spend most of your time flicking between past and future rather than being present right here and now.
As you walk or sit, you will remember things that happened, regret things that should have happened but didn’t, and bother yourself about other things that actually did happen, but you wish to the good Lord above that they had never occurred. You will revisit them time and again, and you will feel it all.
You will then flip forward to your shopping trip next Saturday, consider what you’re doing to do for Christmas, and rehearse how you will ask your boss for a pay rise. You will be present in these imaginary places. All the emotions will hit you.
When a writer uses the techniques of enargia to invoke a scene in our imagination, this is what he or she is tapping into. Done well, our brains cannot but use the writer’s description to conjure a scenario and live in it.
When an author deploys enargia, these trips into literary imagination can be truly life-changing.
Quite often at this point, someone such as myself will be referring to scientific studies to back up his point. I will do that later. But for now, but I don’t need to reference anything external, all I need is for you to examine your own experience.
Have you ever been to a movie, a play, heard a story, watched a TV drama?
Yes, I thought so.
If so, you know that the scenes the artists create bring out emotions in you. They can make you cry, make you scared, make you almost fall in love and, depending on your reading or viewing material, make you horny.
Writing makes you feel all these things, even if they’re not happening in reality.
It’s magic. Oscar Wilde and Neil Gaiman generated pictures, sounds and smells in your imagination.
Most importantly, these sensory memories dragged with them lots of associated emotions like someone hauling in a fishing net full of starfish, colored shells and flippety-flapping fish.
Your mind is a fishing net. All sensory impressions are part of a spider’s web of memory, and all imagination arises from memory. You cannot imagine something you have never experienced. Try and imagine a new color or a sound you’ve never heard.
The best we can do when we imagine something novel is come up with a mish-mash, a chimera of things we’ve already seen, but sewn together like Frankenstein’s monster.
Even Cthulhu is made of bits of cuttlefish and octopus.
John Locke said that. Not the bit about Cthulhu. It’s called anti-nativism, in case you care. If you do, read more.
Because our minds work like a web, each time Oscar Wilde mentions laburnum, you remember the laburnum you’ve seen, probably a compendium of all the laburnum you’ve ever seen, and that pulls with it the feelings of happiness or fear, dread or desire that you had when you saw that laburnum. You can’t help it.
It’s Proust’s Madeleine. He eats the Madeleine dipped in tea and it conjures a whole episode from the past with all associated memories, feelings and regrets.
Neil Gaiman’s description of a rainy London night, brought back my memories of walking in the rain in London, decades ago, long before regret and age squeezed me dry.
If you’ve never been to London, maybe for you it brought back rainy Chicago or a downpour in Shanghai, and if you’ve never lived anywhere rainy, and thus have no soaked memories of your own, then perhaps it dredged up movies you’ve seen or scraps of stories told by favorite aunts.
So that’s the theory. But how does it work inside your head? For that we need to look inside the brain. Fortunately, we’re much better at working out how the brain works now without having to kill people first.
There are three current methods used to look at the brain at work. These are:
- EEG, where you have a hair-net of wires on your scalp that records the patterns of electrical activity from the brain beneath the skull.
- PET scans that record glucose use in your brain. You get injected with radioactive glucose, which can be traced. The more glucose that is used, the more active the brain area is and the ‘hotter’ it appears on the scan.
- fMRI scans use magnetism rather than radiation to measure the flow of oxygenated blood to specific brain regions. If a brain region is heavily active, it will show increased blood flow.
These types of scan that measure brain activity show which parts of the brain light up when we read fiction.
An article in the New York Times from 2012 discusses how when we read, the language parts of the brain, the so-called Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s area are understandably active, but also:
Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains but also those devoted to dealing with smells.
Your Brain On Fiction by Annie Murphy Paul
Also, a description of ‘leathery’ hands stimulates the part of your brain that stores your leather memories (might need to be careful here). A chocolatey voice lights up chocolate and sugar (and probably for me Prague, as I remember a lovely hot chocolate once drunk on a freezing day in the Old City.)
A description of someone kicking a ball activates the part of the motor cortex that deals with legs and catching a ball that part of the brain that manages hands.
Such is the power of metaphor. That’s why we use it.
So let’s get this straight. When you smell lavender, the bit of your brain devoted to the smell of lavender lights up, the bit devoted to the color of lavender lights up and these web out to pull in all your networked emotions and memories of lavender.
When you read a passage about lavender, the same areas of the brain fire up as do when you wander through a lavender field in real life.
Your brain struggles to tell the difference between fact and fiction.
The better a writer is at deploying the technique of enargia, the stronger the activity in the associated brain area.
Interestingly, a study here:
found differences in brain activity between reading fiction and reading news.
We presume news authors spend less time on enargia than fiction writers — though I just read Story Craft by Jack Hart about narrative journalism, so maybe not always.
In general, this would support a view that the better done the enargia is, the greater the effect on the reader’s brain, and the bigger pull on their emotions.
I perhaps haven’t emphasised this enough, but to be successful writers we want to stimulate the reader to see our scenes mostly because we want to drag in their emotions.
Emotions are ultimately why people read books.
If you write your descriptions, drawing in all the senses, use vivid metaphors and detail the scene. If you do it well you can fool the brain into working the way it would if they were really there.
That is the secret of successful fiction.
I read to visit places conjured by the author, to wander through them with all my senses active.
Thanks to the skill of great writers, I have walked through Lothlorien, and Narnia, Ancient Rome and Bladerunner’s LA—but never Hogwarts. I just never read it. I saw the movies though. They were good.
Thanks to the enargia of Ursula Le Guin and Joan Aiken, I’ve been to Earthsea and Battersea, the first only in fiction, the second for real too.
So, these are my thoughts about enargia. I’d be interested in hearing what you think.
Deliberate Practice For Authors
I have begun a blog where I am trying to deconstruct the writing of great authors, learn how they write and so improve my own style.
There’s a link here