Most stories go along, reporting actions and events, delivering internal thoughts of characters and direct dialogue, offering imagery, metaphors, and other devices — and this is enough. It’s very robust, in fact. These elements make for a rich text, with ample variety, a full reading experience. As a writer you’ve got your hands full attending to these things such as the five senses in your descriptions: the sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes in your character’s fictional world. But there’s a sentence type that falls outside this scope. It’s a different breed entirely. Not all writers even use it. But Don DeLillo uses it pretty regularly, and to good effect.
The best this term I can come up with is truism. That falls a little short, however. Checking the definition of truism, we get :
truism, 1: an undoubted or self-evident truth, especially one too obvious to mention.
That’s close. DeLillo does include categorical statements that assert a truth in the form of a generalized observation. But they’re definitely not obvious or self-evident. They’re highly unique, whether broad or nuanced. But they are anything but obvious.
Are they maxims?
maxim, 1: a general truth, fundamental principle, or rule of conduct. E.g., "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched.
The general part is sometimes right, but this lacks originality. A maxim is a familiar, a coined phrase, like an adage. DeLillo’s lines would do you little good at a cocktail party. And they don’t draw on wide usage to put people on familiar territory.
Let’s take a look at examples, and see what you come up with for the best term and how to define these. These are all from DeLillo’s novel The Names (Vintage Contemporaries, 2011). And they’re all from the first 100 pages.
DeLillo Example 1
DeLillo Example 2
DeLillo Example 3
DeLillo Example 4
What would you call these? What do you think is the best name for them, and why? What qualities do they have and share? Look at them again if you like, and write your answers somewhere.
One way we can look at this narrative feature is as general observations. They are somewhat traditional when taken on their own. In a way, it’s a very old-school device. They are not unlike the famous first line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Or Jane Austen’s first line in Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
But I think the way DeLillo employs them makes them different. The difference is that Tolstoy and Austen are writing in the third person, and their lines get attributed to the third-person narrator. In each of these cases, the wisdom is delivered from a distance. Austen is saying, in the storytelling fashion of the time, “We all know, dear reader, that any rich man will want to get married (because his money will open marriage opportunities for him). And so, I’m going to tell you about a character who is one of those rich men.”
When DeLillo does it, however, he does so without creating this sense of divide between author and character. For him the truisms are in effect a tool in the descriptive toolkit, similar to saying an apple was cool and crisp in a character’s mouth. Here’s another example. This is narrated in the first-person by the protagonist James, visiting the home of his colleague George Rowser, in Athens, Greece.
Here the action is related in a lot of standard ways: before the truism, Rowser takes off his shoes (visual description); there’s indirect dialogue; there’s internal thought. After the line, comes direct dialogue (“When do you leave, George?”) However, in between is the truism.
Noise is a kind of rain to Athenians, an environment shaped by nature. Nothing can prevent it.
Notice that the relative noise level of a cul-de-sac, where the characters are in this scene, is described sufficiently. James describes becoming aware of the eerie calm. So really the mood of the place had been established. Enough had been said about noise and quiet, and it is quite clear. The truism line might have been omitted entirely. Here’s how it would read without it.
…I felt myself beginning to perceive the silence, the eerie calm that closed in gradually every time I came in here from the street. The building was in a cul-de-sac, a preciously quite spot in a city hardened by noise.
“When do you leave, George?”
Not bad, right? So, what ultimately is gained by the inclusion of the truism? What’s the difference when the truism is included? What does the truism add to the narrative? To the characterization? Write your answer, and feel free to add any other observations you may have about the effects of truisms.
My two cents. I think it is creates the impression of a character who is intelligent, observant, engaged, reflective.
I think it broadens the perspective of the story, and can in effect widen the themes. Instead of a story where everything is locked into the events and actions of the characters (what happened, what they said, thought, smelled, etc.) in a kind of self-reflective, hermetically sealed way, it connects the characters and their lives to the wider world, the real world. It puts them in touch with greater movements, human nature, history, the way things are. And when we think of DeLillo and his reputation and body of work, don’t we think precisely of scope and vision?
A Cheeky Word of Caution
So DeLillo employs this technique with some frequency, and then curiously, he seems to poke fun at himself and his tic, if it is a tic, in the following, on page p. 74.
Ha. Funny and unexpected. Or maybe this provides a lesson. We don’t trot our truisms around every mundane thing. That would be tiresome, and really make for a character who lacks perspective around what’s important to ponder and form opinions around — what has deeper meaning and what doesn’t.
Notice the page numbers that these examples come from: 15, 31, 39, 43–44, 49, 74, 79, 94.
He’s not doing this often. He’s not dropping a truism in every scene. He exercises appropriate restraint and brings them out around key things. The lingering effects of children’s departure, the apparent gentleness of military governments, the behavior of tourists, the amount of noise in Athens — these are all central to this story and the life of its protagonist, Jim, who is a foreigner living in Athens separated from his wife (their son stays with his ex primarily).
Your Turn — Truism Exercise
Now, as always, we bring in this technique to our own writing. How do we do it? Take any stock scene. Say, someone’s cooking a meal.
Rocking the knife back and forth against the cutting board, Jane diced the onions. “Decant a bottle of red, will you?” she called to Henry. She turned up the music on her phone. Her eyes watering, she tossed the diced onions into the sizzling skillet. She surveyed her preparations, looking for items she’d overlooked. She had a pork roast, fingerling potatoes, rolls, a salad, green beans, a brioche, and two pies. Hungry cooks always make too much. Jane hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
Food is love. Americans know this; they learned it from the Italians.
But the truism could be such a variety of things. Whatever Jane is feeling.
Cooking calms us. Something about the ritual steps that lead to the satiation of our hunger, the act that keeps our bodies alive.
Or maybe she doesn’t feel positive or reflective about cooking at all:
The demands on dinner party hosts are unbearable. Foodies show up and nitpick at everything anyway.
Hosting a dinner party is never worth it. This is what one must forget before doing it again.
For me, one thing I would be sure to do is to stay away from the cliché about eyes being larger than stomachs. We don’t want our truisms being obvious, self-evident, or pedestrian. And we never really want a single line of our work to be cliché or stock phrase.
Now it’s your turn. Write a few substantial paragraphs — more of the story takes off. Include some standard stuff to establish the scene, then work in a truism. Here’s the prompt.
- A character working out at the gym. What truism might they express? It would be quite different if your character loves weightlifting versus someone on doctor’s orders to drop ten pounds, who might feel grudgingly about the task. So either plan their attitude about workouts, or see what feelings develop in your character toward the gym, and let that guide you.
And now, look at this. Once you get the hang of shaping a character’s point of view, thoughts, perspective, feelings, attitude in a truism, here’s how to take it to the next level. Here DeLillo offers an extended truism, unpacking the idea and building up on it, creating in effect, a stunningly incisive and lyrical passage.
I hope you enjoyed this lesson.