Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Word Picture

As any writer can tell you, there are innumerable ways to write prose (poetry too, but that's not really in my wheelhouse, so I'll stick to what I know here). Besides genre, talent and possibly era, one thing that makes us readers prefer one author over another is their writing style. Telling a story through writing is often times very tricky, because creating an image in the reader's mind of settings, characters and events, all in a vivid yet succinct fashion, is what makes a novel unique compared to other storytelling mediums such as film or music.

I like to think there are no right or wrong ways to tell a story - yes, there really are a whole lot of wrong ways, but I prefer to consider them more specialized to the author rather than bad writing (which is why I'd make a horrible creative writing teacher or a literary critic). While some writing styles might be ... ill-advised, let's say, it doesn't mean that there is only one way to write a narration "correctly".

A few people who have read my previous work have remarked that I spend less time describing the environment of the story than other authors. I've heard nobody cite this as a complaint, but more of an observational comparison. It's true that I don't utilize as much of my word count on describing things in my story as other authors I've read. My descriptions of characters are often vague, particularly of primary characters, and my narrative often offers less of a physical description of the story's environment than one might be accustomed to. I would have to say that both of these qualities of my writing style are deliberate.

Coming, to some extent, from a filmmaking background, I am accutely aware of a story's pacing, and I am constantly concerned with a narrative dragging. Particularly in moments of high drama or action, I believe that it can really bog down a story when paragraph after paragraph are spent describing in tremendous detail in painting a word picture of events. Keeping a balance of brevity and imagery during important moments in a story is one of the great challenges of novel writing.

It's also important, I think, to notice what perspective the narrative is coming from. For my stories, it is commonly from a single protagonist's point of view, and so the narration itself should reflect that. If our hero is battling a dragon, he or she isn't necessarily going to be noticing how the creature's "blood-soaked scales are glistening in the sunlight like the sheen of a thousand polished aegis shields from a legion of soldiers marching to battle". My view would be that our hero should not be trying to figure out the most poetic metaphor for the shine on the dragon's hide - they should we worried instead about ducking its fire-breath.

In addition, it's as much for me a question of personal preference as anything. Someone mentioned that female authors tend to be more verbally descriptive, and maybe it's true (though it's hard to discount other male authors like JRR Tolkein in that respect). My own personal view as a reader is, that I've seen a sunset before - I don't need half a page of flowery descriptives to tell me what one looks like. I feel like often-times authors like to show off how poetic they can be with their writing in this way, but as a reader, I prefer to fill in the gaps with my own imagination. The real excitement for me comes from the unfolding of the story's events, and especially in the nature of the characters themselves.

Describing the characters is even more down this path for me. I draw pieces of myself in almost every character I create, but I suspect that even those closest to me don't fully comprehend what part of me I draw them from. What characters are supposed to do, in my opinion, is allow the reader to find parts of themselves to relate to them. If the reader can't relate to the character on some level, then there's no real connection between them.

Look at it this way, when you're reading a story, in your own head, what do the character's voices sound like? I know that for me, in every story I read, every character's voice, male and female, sounds like my own. If the description of their voice says that it's low and raspy, or high-pitched and nervous, or with a thick accent, it still sounds like my voice with those properties added. It's how I subconsciously connect with the characters, so that they sound like a person I can relate to on some level.

In the same vein, when I'm allowed to fill in the blanks based on some general guidelines on how a character looks, then I'm free to create an image of the character in my head that I'm comfortable with. It might be very different from any other reader's image, but that's the beauty of novels. In a movie, we're stuck with whomever the casting director thought was good for the role, whether they're right for it or not. In novels, we can custom cast every part, and build every set and location ourselves, in our own mind - if the author allows us that freedom.

Obviously, this can be taken to an extreme, as a lack of descriptions can dull our view entirely of the characters and the world. I should also add that I too like to strut my flowery pen now and again as much as the next writer. But I feel like such things are the whipped cream of the meal. A chef should add just enough garnish to offer some extra flavor, but don't go overboard, because the diner might grow sick of it.

Anyway, that's how I feel about it. I don't know how controversial such a stance would be to an established critic or professor on the subject. They might tell me that I'm wrong to suggest it, and that my writing is bad because of it. They might even be right. But an author should always write for themselves above the dictates of others, if only so that they will have at least one fan of their work.

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