Truisms in Narrative

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.

I think it’s just exciting enough to include on the home page for a time!

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.

Yeah, kind of. While what DeLillo does is to include categorical statements that assert a truth in the form of a generalized observation, 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.

Cover of DeLillo’s novel, The NamesThe 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 . And they’re all from the first 100 pages.

DeLillo Example 1

It’s almost comic, the number of ways in which people can find themselves diminished.

DeLillo Example 2

When children race out of rooms the noise of their leaving remains behind.

DeLillo Example 3

Marriage is something we make from available materials.

DeLillo Example 4

The fear of [the] sea and things that come from the sea is easily spoken. The other fear is different, hard to name, the fear of things at one's back, the silent inland presence.

Analysis prompt 1

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 [In AWS courses, these lessons and answers are presented in the app].

One View

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, the author. In each case, the wisdom sets up a distance and divide between the writer and the characters. 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 in want of a wife.”

When DeLillo does it, however, he does so seamlessly, without creating this sense of divide between author and character. They 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 by a first-person narrator named James, at the home of George in Athens, Greece.

Here the action is related in a lot of standard ways: before the line, 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: in 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 award 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?

Analysis Prompt 2

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.

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. Soon her eyes stung and watered, and the diced onions went into sizzling skillet. Dabbing them dry, she surveyed her preparations, looking for items she’d overlooked: a pork roast, fingerling potatoes, rolls, a salad, green beans, remoulade, a brioche, the two pies. Hungry cooks always make too much. Jane hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

Or:

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.

Or, similarly:

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. We’ll do two of these, because they’re short. Write one paragraph. Include some standard stuff to establish the scene, then work in a truism. Here’s the first prompt.

1. 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 toward the gym, and let that guide you.

Next one:

Take an existing passage or scene from a WIP (work in progress) and see if a truism might emerge that you can work in.

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