Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Description and Degrees of Familiarity, Part One

Today we’re going to return to an example that I gave in the Writing Spicy Description post:

Don’t use two words where one will suffice: I once edited a story where a character approached a sea where “along the shore was a row of several straight wooden walkways that jutted out into the ocean, held up by thick pylons sticking up out of the water.” I edited this to say, “Along the shore was a row of wooden docks.” So that you don’t have to count for yourself, that’s nineteen fewer words. Everyone does this, at some point—I’ve done it myself. Always look for the shortest, most descriptive word possible.

This is generally good advice, but it’s not universally applicable. Let’s delve a little deeper into a few situations where you might want to say more than just “a row of wooden docks.”

When the perspective character is unfamiliar with an object

     Juba scuttled through a field of tall, thin plants. The tops of the plants were wider than their stalks and waved in the breeze.  They rasped against his carapace, far drier than any of the plant life on his planet.
     The field ended suddenly at a wide pathway of some black, rock-like material. More of the tall plants waved on the other side of the path, but the path itself ran to the left and the right as far as Juba could see. A series of yellow lines and dashes ran down the center of the pathway.

In this example, we’ve opted to describe a field of wheat and the road that runs through it without ever using the words “wheat” or “road.” The reason for this is that our perspective character, Juba, is some sort of alien being who has never seen wheat or paved roads—he wouldn’t know the proper terms for them. In fact, if we were to use the proper terms for them, it would be a perspective error! We can’t tell our audience what our perspective character doesn’t know, as we’ve discussed before.

Let’s return to our above-mentioned description of a row of docks. This description would have been entirely appropriate if the perspective character had never seen or heard of docks; in fact, that’s what I assumed after reading the passage. The problem arose a few sentences later when it became clear to me that the character not only knew what docks were, but had also been to these very docks before. It’s the Figure Problem—describing something or someone without first identifying what or who they are implies that the perspective character is unfamiliar with whatever is being described. This is a useful tool for implying unfamiliarity; just make sure it only happens when you want it to.

Caution: When using this technique to imply unfamiliarity, the character must remain unfamiliar with whatever is being described. To continue with our example from above:

     Bright lights suddenly appeared from down the pathway on the right, accompanied by an odd, grinding roar. Startled, Juba darted back into the wheat to hide from whatever was coming.

Wait, when did Juba figure out that these plants were called wheat? We’ve already used our description to indicate that he doesn’t know that term, so we absolutely cannot use the word wheat until someone else gives it to Juba. 

Writers generally make this mistake for one of two reasons: first, it’s awkward and difficult to write about a field of wheat without using the word wheat. That’s just too bad—you’ll have to soldier through. Don’t use this technique unless you’re ready to commit to it. The second reason is that the writer assumes that because the audience has probably figured out that the plants are wheat, it’s all right to call them wheat now. It’s not—in this case, what the audience knows is irrelevant. You have to keep the perspective consistent.

When the audience is unfamiliar with an object

Suppose your perspective character is a human colonist on a strange, distant planet. She is out exploring when suddenly she is attacked by a ruger! Now, she is an expert explorer—ruger attacks are a near-daily occurrence on this planet, and she is quite familiar with the beast and how to deal with them. The trouble is that your audience, of course, has no idea what a ruger looks like. So you absolutely have to describe it clearly enough for your audience to picture comfortably.

The trick to this situation is to describe the ruger without making it seem unfamiliar to the perspective character. We’ve already taken the first step toward this—we’ve identified the creature as a ruger.

Picture yourself walking down the sidewalk. A stray dog crosses the street toward you. When you see it, do you think, “hmm . . . a four-legged, furry beast is walking toward me with its tongue lolling out of its long snout—this is a dog”? No, of course not! You think, “a dog is walking toward me.”

Identification implies familiarity.  The more quickly your character is able to identify a creature or object, the more familiar they are implied to be with said creature or object, and vice-versa. So, if your colonist immediately identifies the approaching creature as a ruger, the audience will know that she is familiar with rugers. If she sees the creature and you describe its appearance before she identifies it as a ruger, then the implication is that she knows about rugers but isn’t intensely familiar with them. If she describes the creature but never identifies it as a ruger (as Juba did with the wheat and the road), then the audience will know that she is entirely unfamiliar with rugers.

Once your colonist has identified the ruger, you are free to describe it without creating perspective errors. Be sure to keep the description true to the perspective character, of course—don’t use terms they wouldn’t, even if it would get the image across to your reader. Bonus points if you can frame the description in such a way that it seems natural for the character to be mentally dwelling on the description: perhaps your colonist notes that this ruger has different coloring than most and is unusually large. In describing how this ruger is different from most rugers, you can potentially tell the audience about rugers without it seeming out of character for the colonist to dwell on the ruger’s appearance.

Next time, we’ll discuss two more reasons to dwell on description—when a character is intensely familiar with a type of object, and when you just want to.

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