Thoughts of Inscape and Instress in Relation to Fiction

One of my favorite literary figures has, for many years, been Gerard Manly Hopkins. In my book, the man is a genius and a massive inspiration. I’ve never encountered use of sound and imagery to rival his poetry. He invented two terms, which he wrote about extensively in his journals and letters: inscape and instress. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to these concepts of late, and am hoping that writing this blog will help me to solidify my own opinion.

 Inscape: the particular features and qualities of a thing that makes it unique.

Of course, Hopkins is not alone in thinking this way. Many writers and philosophers have other terms that more or less describe the same thing (St. Thomas Merton’s use of “thingness” comes to mind, a word that always makes me smile). But Hopkins believed not only that all things were unique, but that their uniqueness was what rendered them beautiful and valuable. He would sit and watch a sunset and write down just how he thought that sunset differed from all others. It also explains why he would write a whole poem thanking God for the existence of freckled things. What could be more inscape-y than freckles?

Instress: The actual experience of discerning inscape; how a person integrates that inscape into his or her memory or imagination.

Instress is about the perception of a thing’s uniqueness. For Hopkins, experiencing instress was an almost spiritual experience. He believed that by recognizing the inscape in other things, one would see how wide and varied the world was, and appreciate themselves more for their own individuality. My old Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol. 2 explained it this way:

“Each being in the universe ‘selves,’ that is, enacts its identity. And the human being, the most highly selved, the most individually distinctive being in the universe, recognizes the inscape of other beings in an act that Hopkins calls instress, the apprehension of an object in an intense thrust of energy toward it that enables one to realize specific distinctiveness”


So, “what does any of this have to do with writing fiction?” you might ask.

I’d say it is an invaluable concept. If you’ve written a book with settings, moments, and characters that have inscape, they are unique. If readers recognize that uniqueness, you’ve given them instress: no mean feat.

What I’d like to consider is just how this happens. To focus on the inscape in descriptions would be tedious and rather transparent. For example: ‘He had 18 freckles on the bridge of his nose,” “the tree’s fourth brach on the right curved downward,” etc. Specific descriptions like these might add nice texture if used sparingly, but to describe everything in a novel with that level of specificity would be unbearable for a read.

So, rather than describing a thing in great detail, we must evoke in a reader the inclination and ability to invent such specificity in their own imagination. And this is the real crux of the thing.

I’ve been thinking about which books have given me instress: which character’s have distinct faces in my mind’s eye, which scenes I imagine with color and scope. This reflection has led me to realize what makes me experience instress in fiction (though it seems distinctly possible that such things are peculiar to each reader).


1.) Familiarity 

If a book gives me a detail that is familiar, my mind tends to fill in the gaps. For example, if a book describes the smell of fresh rain and a character is in a forest, my imagination will transplant my own experiences into the story. I can start to think of the raindrops dripping from the needles long after the rain has ceased, and the feel of sodden foliage beneath my feet, and the moistness of the air. I layer life’s instress with the book, creating a fuller feeling of immersion without a tediously long description.  Of course, the problem here is that not all people have the same experiences. Someone who doesn’t spend time in the woods will have a much thinner personal input. You frequently hear people say that they imagine a character looking like someone they know because that character did or said something reminiscent of that person. This, too, is familiarity in play.

2.) Sensory Details

 So often, books rely only on visual descriptions despite the fact that our perceptions are informed by all the senses. Creating a fuller world through smells, feelings, and sounds is always a good idea. Smell is often said to be the best trigger of memory (though I can’t claim to have done research on this). I am a firm believer that sound is the very best sensory element, for the simple reason that most sound words have an onomatopoetic quality. The word “smoke” doesn’t smell like smoke and the word “rough” doesn’t feel rough, but the word “bang” sure sounds like bang. This taps into the familiarity in my first point—something that is evocative, like a sound or smell, helps us attach to a scene in a special way. We contribute with our own experiences.

3.) Caring

 This might seem obvious, but a reader is more likely to put in the effort of imagining a thing in detail, and thereby experiencing instress, if they give a damn. A cardboard cutout character is, in my imagination, going to remain like a mannequin. I may trouble to give them hair color, but nothing more. However, a character that feels real to me, a character that jumps off the page and inspires either my affection or ire, for that character my mind will draw a face in detail. I think this is why people are never happy with actors chosen to play beloved characters in movies. If we care, we have given them their own face, and no matter how true to the book, the face of an actor will always differ. The same is true of imagining a scene in a book. If the setting is written in such a way that is inspiring or remarkable, I will color it in. I will enrich it with smell, sound, and touch. If the details are meager, bland, or nonexistent, that’s when my mind puts the character in a plain white box.

So, in summation (and perhaps this whole post is a bit esoteric, but…bah!) I think it works like this:

Tap into experience and emotion + make a reader care = Inscape (uniqeness). Experiencing inscape = Instress (awesomeness).


unsplash-logoArtem Sapegin

Recent Comments

  • Michael Houlder
    January 24, 2017 - 7:20 pm · Reply

    Dear March, I’ve just completed a retreat at St Beuno’s & I will be spending much more time there later this year. There is a whole corridor devoted to the work of Hopkins, indicating its importance to the work of the Jesuit Spirituality Centre there.

    Normally poetry is the last thing on my mind, trained as I am as a math logician. However, during my retreat, I saw a fundamental relationship between the work of Hopkins and the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. That this happened is no surprise. Hopkins as a Jesuit was steeped in the Spiritual Exercises. The perception of the inscape is ultimately that of God.

    I’d be interested to see how you relate the essentially religious character of Hopkins’s poetry to fiction.
    Best wishes

    • March McCarron
      January 24, 2017 - 7:48 pm · Reply

      Wow, that sounds like a wonderful experience! I’m quite jealous. I’ve long been fascinated by Hopkins, both as a Catholic and a writer. I certainly can see how you would see the relationship between the Spiritual Exercises and his poetry, though I hadn’t ever considered comparing the two. I think both are useful to writers, as they encourage self-reflection and a more unclouded eye for the world at large, both of which lead to more honest and thoughtful prose. That they are fundamentally religious, while I write secular fiction, doesn’t cause me any conflict. A writer’s fundamental beliefs end up bleeding into the story naturally. And even if I were not myself Catholic, I see the value for all writers in taking the time to look inwards and outwards.

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