Monday, February 16, 2009

Description: Rhetorical Strategy or Cock-and-Bull Story

description--the salient qualities of a character, place, or thing; the briefest gloss without distracting from story on how an organization or tradition works; relevant details in a story; a series of adjectives, adverbs and evocations that convey personality, sense of place or sense of atmosphere.

When you choose words to describe a character, a locale, an institution, even a room at a Motel 6, they should come from a menu of emotion-friendly words, words that help transport the feeling of being in Character A's presence, the patience needed to overcome the ambient awfulness of Locale B, the fussy bureaucratic wrangling within Institution C, the no-holds-barred torture to the back and neck experienced while sleeping or otherwise on a Motel 6 bed.

And yet.

Words of description are not like the words of political conventions, intent on mobilizing crowds to cut back on thought and open up the spending of rabid emotion. Words of description are like the evocations of champagne, rascally pinot noirs, single malt whiskey, the hoppy promise of a pale ale, the piquancy of a homemade pesto; they lead us to the experience then turn us loose to experience it rather than lock us in the closet with it. If it is important enough to the story to include the breakfast menu at a particular meeting, we should be able to have our impression of each character enhanced by what he or she orders, and how it is eaten.

The best descriptions of a character come from the way he or she does things; a locale has a particular personality that is conveyed by the way things within it appear and behave; organizations reflect the personality of a leader or of individuals trying to imitate said leader; rooms in any given Motel 6 smell like mass-produced disinfectant, cheap furniture, and indifferent pizzas delivered by indifferent drivers who despair of reasonable tips. To inhale the atmosphere of a Motel 6 is to breathe in the pathology of the American dream and perhaps be numbed by the experience.

We should be using description to convey personality; at all costs we should not use description to display our ability as a writer.


cock-and-bull story, a--any narrative or story which on its face becomes of doubtful provenance; a narrative suspected of being contrived, embellished, or a deliberate fabrication; thus a deliberate attempt at deception.

Talking animals have held a significant place in the literature of the ages, seemingly well suited to illustrate fables, satires, and tales. Grendel comes quickly to mind, she of Beowulf and the eponymous novel by John Gardener. Aesop put words into the mouths of animals; so did George Orwell, and Geoffrey Chaucer. Dragons, wolves, unicorns all have had their say, some prescient and others hysterical (see Henny-Penny).

A cock-and-bull story is built in the first place to deceive, divert, or delay. A cock-and-bull story is the dog ate my homework writ large. If the deception has as its purpose an amusing payoff and/or a moral purpose, such as those told by Mark Twain, we are often the better for it, refreshed, our critical senses laundered and hung out to dry in the sunshine of reason and self-examination. If the deception is to tighten the grip of fear and control, the believer becomes in time as much at fault as the perpetrator.

For those of us who are book oriented, it becomes pleasing to think of an anthology, perhaps even a lofty Oxford Companion to the Cock and Bull Story. Imagine the fun and clamor. The anthology is to be divided into two parts; no not Cock and Bull, but rather For Fun and For Real.

The aforementioned Mr. Twain would be a welcomed addition to the fun side, as well as one of his modern embodiments, Kurt Vonnegut.

Imagine the mischief and consternation and competition for inclusion in the For Real side, those men and women who promulgate C & B as though they had come down from the mountain top, bearing an engraved slab of granite:

Phyllis Schlaffly
The Rev. Falwell
The Rev. Robertson
Number Forty-three and his Vice-president
Charles Krauthammer
Ann Coulter
William Krystol
Jean Schmidt (the GOP wingnut rep from Ohio)

and, as the late, lamented Mr. Vonnegut would have said, so it goes.


The cock-and-bull story can be a lovely learning experience, or a one-way ticket to the worst kind of convention of all. My personal belief of it is that it is the forerunner of the tall tale in the grand tradition of the American West. One place to look for its origins is in that remarkable novel about origins and reality, Tristram Shandy,
in which a character says, "It is a story about a Cock and a Bull--and the best of its kind that I have ever heard."

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