20 August 2010

To Name is to Imbue with Life

Do you want rent rooms at Burtonleigh House or Bleak House? Take a picnic to Springfield Crest or Danklow Pits? Drive there in a beat-up Honda or a beat-up Ferrari?
     Knowing why we, as people, make instant choices helps us, as writers, choose with care. Of course, our choices only seem instant to us. Our brains have been taking information, collating it, comparing elements of it to previous experience, before giving us… a reasonable guess.
     Readers of our writing are doing this all the time, so quickly they hardly notice, taking from the page a word or phrase or entire paragraph and comparing it to their experiences so as to help build pictures in their minds. But coming across a name adds importance, it adds associations:

          ‘Do you want to go for a picnic today?’
          ‘Don’t mind. Not bothered.’
          ‘We could go to Danklow Pits.’
          ‘Oh, wow! Yeah! Last time we went…’

     Perhaps that made you blink, perhaps it didn’t. It depends how you felt about Danklow Pits when you first came across it as a bare name at the top of this post, your own associations, your emotional baggage. The fictional speaker’s emotional baggage is positive based on previous experiences there, but are you, as a reader, convinced? Do you remain wary of picnicking at Danklow Pits? Are you willing to go along to see if your first impression, based on a feeling, a hunch due to its name alone, was justified?
     This sort of juxtapositioning of characters’ and readers’ experiences is used a lot in the Horror genre, used in Thrillers and some Crime, depending on the sub-genre, and used sparingly and with subtlety in most other genres. Carried along by the pace, readers hardly notice, but the writers have made specific choices with a pay-off in mind, not set such in the text on a whim. They are fuelling atmosphere and readers’ anticipation, setting it down as a fine layer to be added to later, often via choices in description.
      In genres such as Romance, the naming of places and things is chosen to reinforce readers’ expectations of the sub-genre they have selected, but atmosphere and anticipation remain the writer’s goal. Danklow would ring alarms on a subliminal level no matter what it was used in conjunction with, because D-k are sharp sounding consonants, and the way a word ripples across the tongue, or across the reader’s mind, is always taken into consideration.
     Naming does imbue with life, so when making a choice decide first what pay-off you, the writer, want in return.

Also read post: Description: Signposts in the Text

13 August 2010

Describing Main Characters

When it comes to describing characters, the most common question ignored by writers is ‘Do readers need the description?’
    We’ve all read passages where the main character either stands in front of the bathroom mirror, or looks in a shop’s plate-glass window and catches sight of themselves… and then gives an inch-by-inch internalisation of their features and clothing. So, you do this, do you, every time you find yourself in front of a reflective surface? No, of course you don’t. It’s a contrivance, one that makes readers roll their eyes and find something else to read.
There are various ways to give readers an indication of what your main character looks like, but some of them aren’t any better:

    Jeremy Bowden hovered in the doorway. He was six-feet-five tall, and from crew-necked sweater to patent leather shoes was dressed in black. The only concession to colour was the buckle on the belt that hugged his slim waist, handcraft silver with an inner setting of turquoise to match his dancing blue eyes.

    Take a moment to think about the words used. How high is this doorway if a six-feet-five man can hover in it? What sort of propulsion system does he have installed in the soles of those patent leather shoes? Those blue eyes – line dancing or two-step? And imagine that sort of description repeated for every character making an entrance; readers would grow old waiting for the story to get on track.
    Radio is said to have the best descriptions because listeners supply their own, and the same applies to printed fiction. All the writer needs to do is offer broad outlines and a few highlighting touches. That way the story won’t find itself peopled with women who are all beautiful and green-eyed, possessing long raven / blonde / auburn hair that feels like silk, and wearing thigh-length cashmere sweaters.
    Description of characters, as with description of places, should never be set in a block, but should be integrated among other elements to support the forward momentum of the story.

    Hesitating in the open doorway, Jeremy Bowden checked the dress of the other guests. Informal to a man, just as the invitation had specified. Despite his deep and regular breathing, a familiar rush of heat began to moisten his skin and he pulled at the neckline of his sweater to give himself some air. If he lost it here he’d end up buried in the grounds.
    The waiting apartment he’d expected; it was his due, the arrival of the bank statement a welcome bonus. He’d been given time to breathe, to stretch his limbs and replenish his tan before the courting had started. He should have made his situation plain then, but Jeremy Bowden was a name, and a name couldn’t be seen to be tarnished. Besides, he’d persuaded himself he could handle it. And then the invitation had arrived, and the limousine.
    He glanced over the antique dining table, its silver and crystal set for ten. Ten was too many, too big a job, and he recognised no one by the window, strangers every one, until Oscar Wallace turned to smile at him.
    ‘Good of you to make it, Jerry.’ Wallace paused at the laden dresser to pick up a glass to match his own. ‘Here, have some spiced wine to warm you through and I’ll introduce you around. People want to meet you.’
    People always wanted to meet him, to see the man that went with the name, but there’d been no handshake, Jeremy noted, only an offered glass hot enough to burn his fingers and scald his tongue. And he couldn’t say no, could he? It was too late to say no.

    Description, action, introspection, reminiscence, dialogue, atmosphere… each given a highlight within this partial scene.
    Description is a supporting, not a headline act, and should be used hand-in-hand with other elements. Readers don’t need Jeremy’s past life explaining in detail any more than they require to know the colour of his belt buckle. By his thoughts, his choice of action, they can read between the lines and build him, layer upon layer, into a person with a past, a person with failings, a person with a future; in short, a human being. Encouraged by the writer's guiding hand, they can attribute size, colouring and mode of dress to their individually desired level. Readers can often supply the better pictures, so let them.

Next: Naming is to Imbue with Life