Orwell, Bell and the English Language

When I started writing many, many years ago, a friend referred me to 2 resources. One was an essay by George Orwell called ‘Politics and the English Language’. I studied the essay, summarised the points and have used the teachings ever since. The other was a book called ‘Plot and Structure’ by James Scott Bell. I’d like to share what I learnt below.

From George Orwell’s essay:

[Words like ‘democracy’] are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like … The Soviet press is the freest in the world … are almost always made with intent to deceive.

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself as least 4 questions:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

[And 2 more]

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Follow these rules

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

From James Scott Bell

Bell gave a structure of how to craft the opening paragraph of any novel that will capture the attention of an agent or publisher. He used ‘Midnight’ by Dean Koontz and explained how it should be done:

First sentence: “Janice Capshaw liked to run at night.” Follows the rule: Open with character – named – in motion.
Next two sentences: Author explains something about her running, gives her age and something about her appearance (healthy).
Next five sentences: We learn the time and place (Sunday night, September 21, Moonlight cove). Description of the place. Mood established (dark, no cars, no other people). Background on the place (quite little town).
Next three sentences: Mood details in the action (as she runs).
Next two sentences: Background on Janice likes about night running.
Next five sentences: Deepening details about Janice (why she likes night).
Next three sentences: Action as she runs. More details and mood.
Next sentence: Action as she runs. How she feels.
Next seven sentences: Deepening Janice by describing her past with her late husband.
Next two sentences: First sign of trouble.
Next three sentences: Her reaction to the sign.

I found it hard to understand if this really worked until I took apart the opening scene of a book I liked and applied his advice. Here is what I learnt.

First, let me copy out the opening scene from James Clavell’s Taipan.

Dirk Struan came up onto the quarterdeck of the flagship H.M.S. Vengeance, and strode for the gangway. The 74-gun ship of the line was anchored half a mile off the island. Surrounding her were the rest of the fleet’s warships, the troopships of the expeditionary force, and the merchantmen and opium clippers of the China traders.
It was dawn-a drab, chill Tuesday-January 26th, 1841.
As Struan walked along the main deck, he glanced at the shore and excitement swarmed over him. The war with China had gone as he had planned. Victory was as he had forecast. The prize of victory-the island-was something he had coveted for twenty years. And now he was going ashore to witness the formality of taking possession, to watch a Chines island become a jewel in the crown of Her Britannic Majesty, Queen Victoria.
The island was Hong Kong. Thirty square miles of mountainous stone of the north lip of the huge Pearl River in South China. A thousand yards off the mainland. Inhospitable. Unfertile. Uninhabited except for a tiny fishing village on the south side. Squarely in the path of the monstrous storms that yearly exploded from the Pacific. Bordered on the east and on the west by dangerous shoals and reefs. Useless to the mandarin – the name given to any official of the Chinese Emperor – in whose province it lay.
But Hong Kong contained the greatest harbour on earth. And it was Struan’s stepping-stone into China.
“Belay there!” the young officer of the watch called to the scarlet-coated marine. “Mr. Struan’s longboard to the midships gangway!”
Yes, sir!” The marine leaned over the side and echoed the order.
“Won’t be a moment, sir,” the officer said, trying to contain his awe of the merchant prince who was a legend in the China seas.
“Nae hurry, lad.” Struan was a giant of a man, his face weathered by a thousand storms. His blue frock coat was silver-buttoned and his tight white trousers were tucked carelessly into seaboots. He was armed as usual – knife in the crease of his back and another in his right boot. He was forty-three, redheaded, and his eyes were emerald green.
“It’s a bonny day,” he said.
“Yes, sir.”
Struan walked down the gangway, got into the prow of his longboat and smiled at his younger half-brother, Robb, who sat amidships.
“We’re late,” Robb said with a grin.
“Aye. His Excellency and the admiral were longwinded.” Struan stared at the island for a moment. Then he motioned at the bosun. “Cast off. Go ashore, Mr. McKay!”
“Aye, aye, sorr!”
“At long last, eh Tai-Pan?” Robb said. “Tai-pan” was Chinese for “supreme leader.” In a company or army or fleet or nation there is only one such man – he who wields the real power.
“Aye,” Struan said.
He was Tai-pan of The Noble House.

Analyse this and you’ll find as follows:

First sentence: Dirk Struan came up onto the quarterdeck of the flagship H.M.S. Vengeance, and strode for the gangway. Follow the rule: open with a character – named – in motion.
Next sentence: Where he is.
Next sentence: We learn the time and place (dawn, Tuesday, Jan 26th 1841).
Next para: Author explains something about why Dirk is where he is.
Next para: Describes the place. Explains why Dirk is interested in it.
Next few sentences: Mood details in the action.
Next few sentences: Gives background on Dirk Struan – shows how people admire him.
Next few sentences: a few more details about Dirk.
Next few sentences: Action – what he’s doing.
Next few sentences: How Dirk feels.
Next few sentences: Explains he has a half-brother.
New two sentences: First sign of trouble/interest.
Next three sentences: His reaction to the sign/he is Tai-pan.

If you’re writing a novel and have some tips to share on how the task can be made easier, please do share your knowledge.

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