Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Power of General Statements

To be or not to be, that is the question.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Happy families are all alike, unhappy families are unhappy each in their own way.

What do these famous sentences have in common? They are all general statements.

A general statement is a sentence that defines or declares some large and overarching truth. A general statement does not describe one particular event in the world:

On Tuesday young Charlie eagerly gave $20 to the elegant man with curling mustachios who said he'd make Charlie rich.

—but sums up many such events and finds their core truth:

A fool and his money are soon parted.

General statements are common in all forms of nonfiction, history, psychology, critical essay, polemic, poetry:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
(Emily Dickinson)


To philosophize is to learn how to die.
(Karl Jaspers)

—and advertising:

 Things go better with Coke!

—and they occur whenever a writer has a point to make, some conviction about how life works that he or she wants us to grasp and believe.

A fiction writer's first goal is to tell a story, not win an argument, so general statements play a less prominent role in novels than treatises. Yet if we go looking for them in fiction, we'll soon find them in profusion:

When we confess that we are all sinners, we confess that we all long after naughty things.
(Anthony Trollope)

How true it is that words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean.
(Theodore Dreiser)

Aunts aren't gentlemen.
(P. G. Wodehouse)

Fiction writers use general statements most often to convince readers that the characters would act as the writer describes them acting. Let's say a story has Bob and Betty saying goodnight on her doorstep. He bends to kiss her, but she pushes him away, shouting, "I never want to see you again, you disgust me!" and slams the door, leaving him alone on the stoop. What will the writer say Bob does next?

The writer could have Bob do a million and one things—cry, laugh, scream, get drunk with a male friend, seek out an old girl friend—but if the writer fears that the reader may not find the response he picks for Bob believable, he or she may feel the need to posit some law of human behavior that will explain to the reader's satisfaction why Bob does what he does. So if Bob gets drunk, the writer might comment:

Getting drunk is every twenty-two-year-old's answer to every problem.

—or if he falls into inconsolable sobbing:

Men are emotionally more tender than is commonly believed.

—or if he runs away and joins a Mexican circus:

Sometimes a stupid little quarrel can change the course of a man's life.

The most skillful writers learn to blend general statements into their narrative flow so smoothly that we scarcely notice them. Late in A Tale of Two Cities Dickens creates the unforgettable scene when flinty Miss Pross, Lucy Manette's loyal maid, fights with cruel Madame Defarge to keep her from learning that Lucy and her father have escaped from Paris. Dickens paints every detail of the nerve-wracking action:

Neither of them for a single moment released the other's eye. Madame Defarge had not moved from the spot where she stood when Miss Pross first became aware of her; but she now advanced one step.

Readers, however, might doubt that Miss Pross, who has never struck a fellow human being in her life, can defeat the bloodthirsty Madame Defarge, so Dickens slips in a brief subordinate clause to explain why it's Madame Defarge who doesn't stand a chance:

It was in vain for Madame Defarge to struggle and strike. Miss Pross with the vigorous tenacity of love, always so much stronger than hate, clasped her tight and even lifted her from the floor.

No writer uses general statements more often and more effectively than George Eliot. Quick strokes like the Dickens' quotation above are not for her; Eliot writes out her sympathetic insights into human nature in long resonant sentences:

We learn to restrain ourselves as we get older. We keep apart when we have quarreled, express ourselves in well-bred phrases, and in this way preserve a dignified alienation, showing much firmness on one side and swallowing much grief on the other.
The Mill on the Floss) 

Tito was experiencing that inexorable law of human souls, that we prepare ourselves for sudden deeds by the reiterated choice of good or evil which gradually determines character.

The ever-fresh love readers feel for George Eliot is as much inspired by the wisdom of her general statements as by stories and characters. Her "It is not true that love makes all things easy: it makes us choose what is difficult," from Felix Holt, has been a helpful mantra for me and, I'm sure, countless readers for a century and a half.

General statements draw their strength from their truth. If Dickens had slipped in this clause:

...hate, always so much stronger than love,...

—or Eliot written:

It is true that love makes all things easy.

—I, for one, would find myself saying, "Hold on a sec, Charles, George, I gotta disagree with you there." I'd soon stop reading any writer who kept up a flow of similarly false general statements.

On the other hand, every general statement need not be an eternal verity to be effective. In The Gift of the Magi, O. Henry's immortal tale of the poor young couple who criss-cross their Christmas gifts—Della sells her hair to get Jim a chain for his pocket watch; he sells his watch to get her combs for her hair—O. Henry inserts a general statement in the second paragraph that describes Della crying:

...life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

Reading the statement, I'm divided between thinking, "Hmm, there's some truth in that," and feeling put off by its too-good-to-be-true cuteness: life is made up of a lot more than "sobs, sniffles, and smiles," Mr. Henry! What about agonizing pain and murderous rage? Yet the way O. Henry frames the notion has a certain charm, and since I'm already intrigued by his story, I accept the general statement as true enough for the moment and go on reading.

Through the next half-dozen pages O. Henry shows, with dozens of sympathetic and detailed insights, how Della and Jim "most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house." Yet Della and Jim were perhaps not so unwise after all, he concludes, and he ends his tale with a flurry of general statements, the truth of which still brings tears of recognition to many readers' eyes:

...in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all those who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Monday January 23rd 2012, 11:11 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Better than fantabulous! Seven stars.
Monday January 23rd 2012, 7:13 PM
Comment by: Marah (Mount Shasta, CA)
How can I say? Just one of those fun readings.
Monday January 23rd 2012, 7:59 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
What a great article! Very original and fun to read, as Marah said. Keep up the great writing!
Monday January 23rd 2012, 9:19 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
I really enjoyed this. These sentences give so much depth and plausability to the narrative. For those of us who like to write, this is something for strong consideration
Monday January 23rd 2012, 9:53 PM
Comment by: tony L. (San Jose, CA)
Never thought about generality like that before in literature.
Tuesday January 24th 2012, 8:41 AM
Comment by: Mike (Florissant, MO)
Very interesting. I'll reread this several times. Thanks, Mr. Lydon.
Tuesday January 24th 2012, 1:20 PM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Wonderfully put.

It recalled to mind the fabulous general statements that Lloyd Alexander wove into "The Prydain Chronicles" beginning with "The Book of Three." (I know better than to put quotation marks around these titles. When I try to italicize or underline, a complex window pops up; and I resort to the punctuation above.) The stricter the structure, the more likely the structure's becoming a stricture - generally speaking.
Wednesday January 25th 2012, 4:41 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I'm not clear on something here.
I have always believed that hate, not love, is the more powerful force in human interaction.
Whereas, love is the greatest, the power of hatred has the greater strength.
Am I guilty of particularization?
Thursday January 26th 2012, 11:46 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, all, for your comments! To Roger Dee, I do think that love is a force in human interaction much, muc, much, stronger than hate. Compared to love, hate is a cowardly, sniveling weakling.
Friday January 27th 2012, 4:37 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you, Dr. Lydon, for commenting on my opinion.
There is a sense, however, in which the evil we see so widely displayed in the faces of the hungry, the poverty of the homeless, the agony of emerging nations, the ongoing genocidal actions of those in power, the pellmell rush for pleasure by those that "have it all", the miserable state of those suborned by power, and on and on.
Love as a force to right these wrongs is weak.
The evil of totalerarian govenments cannot be ignored by any thinking person desiring an objective view of this spiritual battle on the world landscape.
There is a point that I am trying to make that is perhaps deeper than the hatred that depands restitution for the downing of our Twin Tower.
Perhaps it is a matter of a broader view to believe that hate is stronger than love?
Friday January 27th 2012, 4:59 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you, Dr. Lydon, for commenting on my opinion.
There is a sense, however, in which the effects of evil are seen displayed so prominently  in the faces of the hungry, the poverty of the homeless, the agony of emerging nations, the ongoing genocidal actions of those in power, the pellmell rush for pleasure by those who "have it all", the miserable state of those suborned by power, and on and on that cannot be reconciled with the belief that love is the stronger force in the world.
Love as a force to ameliorate these wrongs is a weak force in the broader scheme of things.
The evil of totalitarian govenments cannot be ignored by any thinking person desiring an objective view of this spiritual battle on the world landscape.
There is a point that I am trying to make that is perhaps deeper than the simple hatred that demands restitution for the destruction of our Twin Towers.
Perhaps it is simply a matter of taking a broader view to understand that hate is stronger than love? 
As I studied the details of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, I began to see a deeper, stronger force residing in the human heart that illustrates my point.
Friday January 27th 2012, 6:28 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Sad to say, Roger Dee does have a point. Hate and evil do have a tragic strength. They persist through the ages, killing and torturing people without mercy and without remorse, and when we try to understand them, they can overwhelm us and bring us to despair. Still, I believe that love is far stronger than hate. I may be wrong, but I agree with Dickens!
Friday January 27th 2012, 8:33 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you, Dr. Lydon, for your generous consideration of my thoughts as worthy of response.
There is a scope of consideration that extends so far beyond our puny thoughts that any resonance to our normal lives is beyond possible, and it is this level of understanding that I am reaching for.
Yes, love is the most powerful force along with faith and hope. And that love is the Love of God as found in the Gospel story.
But in our real world, it alone is insufficient to overcome the evils I mentioned before.
Thanks again for your comments.
Saturday January 28th 2012, 12:26 PM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
For several days I have hesitated to comment on the insightful comments and honesty of the dialogue above between Roger Dee and Michael Lydon. Perhaps a small addition would contribute something of value.

One of the problems of our time that can limit our understanding of life and the world is our proclivity towards dualism. Here I allude to the polarization of love and hate, good and evil. I am not suggesting these are not powerful forces in the world and within most everyone I know, including yours truly.

Mr. Dee wisely called for a wider perspective at one point; so I offer, at least, a somewhat different one. Without undercutting the power of the strong Anglo-Saxon four letter words above, try another pair: sympathy and antipathy, and then pause for a third element - for balance sake. Before adding that, please allow a few thoughts for clarity.

By "sympathy" I mean the tendency to over-identify with the needs and tragedies of humankind - to the point of sentimentalism. We can get caught up in "feeling with" others that we tend to lose our identity and even our will to make a difference.

"Antipathy" needs little elucidation. Nonetheless, being judgmental against those who are judgmental, can be a subtle seducer leading us into an alienating prison of self-righteousness. Hating those who hate only expands the problem.

There is still within our world and within our selves a third possible evil: apathy. This is, of course, the absence of feeling, the "so what" reflex, the cynical knee-jerk reaction that is so enervating. It can be called slow motion spiritual suicide.

And then there is "empathy." It contains more objectivity than sympathy and even understands antipathy and apathy - yet is compassionate.

Owen Barfield, one of C.S. Lewis's best friends for over forty years, wrote a couple of short novels that could be of interest to any following this conversation. They are "This Ever Diverse Pair" and "Unancestral Voice."

Thanks go to VT for providing this venue for comments. And thanks to Roger Dee and Michael Lydon for taking the risk of airing their views.
Saturday January 28th 2012, 6:18 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks to Keith M., for your thoughtful comments.
When one becomes judgmental against those who are being judgmental, we are simply becoming an unlawful judge.
We risk lawful judgment if we start judging others.
Discernment based on observed behavior is one thing, but the traps of "pigeon-holing", generallization, even "profiling" have that inherent risk in assuming a prescience that is not one of the human strengths. That kind of power would be owned by God alone.
The other trap to avoid is the one of definition. What are we talking about when comparing "love" and "hatred"? 
In my own venture to understand life's meaning, I have come to several conclusions.
One is that the meaning of love, when evidenced in its purest form, will be ever mysterious and supra-human.
Another is that without a clear definition of terms, intelligent discussion is never possible.
And finally, our (Western) culture is rife with silly sentimentality to a large degree, giving substance to things that are inconsequential.
One merely needs to view a few hours of broadcast television programming to make numerous assumptions about the state of the general interests and proclivities of modern life.
So, thank all of you who choose to contribute to this wonderful forum, for your open and sincere comments to my own assumptions and conclusions.
Roger D Paterson MD (aka Roger Dee)

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