Description versus explanation in 'The Exorcist'
William Peter Blatty’s iconic novel The Exorcist is considered one of the most terrifying pieces of 20th century literature. The novel, claiming to be based on true events, tells the story of a young girl possessed by a demonic force and the people who attempt to help her. The idea of demonic possession may frighten people, but the writing style in The Exorcist does little to promote that fear. While the book didn’t lack an eerie mood or tone, an overabundance of explanation caused the novel to read, in some places, more like a peer-reviewed journal or text-book, especially when explained in copious amounts of dialog. While always interesting, and with some great descriptive and gruesome scenes, the novel would have benefited from more descriptive devices, such as emotional expression and inner monologues, to promote a consistent chilling atmosphere.
Description is defined by Dictionary.com as “a statement, picture in words, or account” and explanation as “a statement made to clarify something and make it understandable.” While both terms are defined as “a statement,” description in writing is akin to painting a picture for someone, while explanation is closer to giving a person a report of facts. These devices serve a good purpose, but Blatty’s use of explanation overpowered many places in the book, causing the mood and tone to shift from a scary story to an academic report.
A reason Blatty may have used an abundance of explanation in The Exorcist is because the story is based on true events. The background information may have been for readers to understand the severity and/or reality of the situation. But Blatty’s explanations run long and convolute the storyline. The scientific explanation feels long and drawn out, taking the reader away from the mysterious and chilling mood, creating a scientific or academic tone. Over explanation also causes a break in the eerie atmosphere Blatty constructed during the descriptive passages when delivered in dialog.
Yet, the description Blatty does use works well in the novel. He paints a picture of the scene and of the emotional state of the characters. This creates a connection between the reader and characters and the situation. This device could have been used more often throughout the book to assist in revving up the tension and fear as the story moved toward the climax. Instead, an information dump occurs in an attempt to explain the concept of possession. While this information gets to the heart of the story, it can be difficult for audiences to process in one swallow. The information may have been easier to digest by being dripped into the readers’ minds throughout the novel.
Overall, while Blatty does use some great physical and emotional description in The Exorcist, the story may have benefited from the larger information dumps being broken up and spaced throughout the book and/or delivered in another tactic besides dialog. This may have kept the terrifying feeling of the novel from taking up a scientific or academic tone.
Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Kindle.
“Description.” Dictionary.com. (n.d.) Web. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/description?s=t
“Explanation.” Dictioinary.com (n.d.) Web. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/explanation?s=t