Friday, July 18, 2008

Prescriptive Descriptions

A friend of mine once had a discussion with me about what one can and can't get away with it modern writing. Not in the sense of writing "rules" of style or syntax or that sort of thing, but just in terms of what readers are willing to put up with, as it were.

The example he cited was an eight-page description of a kangaroo. Now, back in the 1800s or so, when people didn't have things like television or photo guides or the Internet, an eight-page description of a kangaroo was probably a fascinating thing.

Nowadays, though, your average person knows what a kangaroo looks like, even if they've never been within a few thousand miles of Australia. We modern day folk have a mental picture in our heads of what a kangaroo looks like, and it's doubtful that any of us would want to read on for eight pages of exacting detail of something we already know.

Describing things can be a tricky thing in writing, anyway; I already know that I tend to err on the side of less description when it comes to my own work. Depending on one's style, the balance between description and narration can, in some cases, be a tricky one to strike.

What can be trickier, though, is when you need to describe something in a way that requires you to not rely on real-world knowledge that the reader already has.

I tend to write in a pretty tight third-person limited point of view, and that's how I'm also writing my current novel(-in-progress). The story doesn't take place in the real world, though, so if (just for example) I wanted to talk about how big a particular city was, I can't just compare it to L.A. or Paris, because with the tightness of the narration, even though the text itself is directed at the reader, the character perspective can't 'think' in those terms. This opens some unique challenges in making sure that you're able to convey something easily to the reader without being able to make use of knowledge even if you know the reader already has it.

In the chapter I'm in the middle of writing, I got to (or is that 'had to'?) spend a few pages describing the details of both an architectural style as well as a type of cuisine that we do actually have in the real world, but which are completely alien to the characters encountering them. Writing about that was actually a whole lot of fun, and I found it to be a gratifying and inspiring challenge. It would have been far easier to just gloss over things, but that wouldn't have been fair to reader and it wouldn't have been as honest to the narration, and in the end, I think I've got a better chapter for it.

So, yes, I'm not writing eight-page descriptions of kangaroos (readers of my books, especially, most assuredly know what kangaroos look like), but I am getting to stretch my literary fingers by showcasing something that might ordinarily be unspectacular in a spectacular light.


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