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.
To philosophize is to learn how to die.
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.
How true it is that words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean.
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.