Monday, May 24, 2010

There's a whole world in my reader's mind

Reading is a form of enchantment.

Perfectly simple really. It is a kind of magic transmuting by means of little black glyphs a bland piece of paper into an entire world, a place so full and rich and with such images in it, that they are REAL (at least while the spell holds).

And yet... we writers are fairly inept magicians. Our attempts at turning people into newts almost inevitably end up with them getting better (even those who were rather newt-like to start with, tend to return to this state.) While this has undoubtably saved a large number of politicians, bank managers and people who were unfortunate enough sign rejection letters from a life of swimming around in small muddy brooks avoiding herons, it does bring one back to the question of just how reading enchantment is done.

And the answer is not so much by what is written by the author as by what is already in the head of the reader. The writer does not so much put the wonderful world there as to allow the reader's imagination and background to paint a picture so rich and detailed it would take a thousand volumes to describe. It can work for backgrounds, it can work actual things happening. Actually that's what put me in mind of writing this piece - I wrote a bit in my Flinders Island blog about a suicidal tree-frog ( http://flindersfreer.blogspot.com/2010/05/one-for-frog-n-toad.html )
in which I sort of hinted at the possibility of a heavy sofa being dropped on my head. I didn't actually say it was (it wasn't) but the image was conjured... by what was left _unsaid_. Matapam made a comment on what she'd imagined, and I thought that I must actually talk about this.

Tolkein was probably the grandmaster of this. Here is a piece from his "On Fairy stories" - which in its original form was a lecture Tolkein gave at St Andrews University as his Andrew Lang Lecture explaining how the reader (hearer) 'saw' that magic. "If a story says 'he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below' the illustrator may catch or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene, but every hearer will have his own picture, and it will be made of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word."

Look, cinematography has come a long way. There really is no need for those poorly lit scenes where you don't quite know what is happening, you just catch glimpses of it. Hell, there is more of that now than in 1950 movies. You think that's because directors are all plonkers? (well, okay... incompetant then). No. It's because they have learned to hack into what Tolkein writes about there. They've learned they can NEVER give an actual, precise image which is MORE real, MORE convincing, and nearly as 'wide' as the one you conjure in your imagination... given the cues.

And, dear writer, is the true magic-working of the writer. Not showing the pictures but shaping the reader's imagination to show the pictures. Filling in the pieces of framework, often very precisely, so that the image the reader creates in his or her imagination fits the story. Any fool can describe something precisely. And a fair number of people can come up with colorful language usage to do so... but to take the reader into that magical world, you have to frame and direct the reader's imagination to release it.

The trick is running the fine line between too much and too little. And often little cues like the choice of diction can have disproportionately large impacts.
So who does it well? And had you actually realised it was being done?

17 comments:

matapam said...

Ernest Hemmingway

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.


I suppose that the shorter the fiction, the more necessary the reader's imagination be drafted to aid the effort.

Done right, the reader never notices. He thinks the descriptions were fantastic, because he can see them in his mind. I'll have to hit the book shelves and see if I can spot some, because none come to mind.

C Kelsey said...

Dragon's Ring. Apparently written by a Monkey with a PhD. I distinctly remember every scene in the book being painted in my head. I even remember seeing the path of Meb's journey stretched out behind her.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - I think you have once again hit on precisely the nub of the matter: "Done right, the reader never notices"

In fact picking up authors who do this may be no harder than picking up the books you remember well (because, duh, they're part of your memories anyway). I think if the reader is drafted in and becomes a willing, nay, eager conscript, it's hard for them not to love the book. Of course not every author manages to do it with every reader, which does to my mind help me understand why some people rave about books that I just couldn't read.

Jim McCoy said...

Mark Twain comes to mind. Remember when they thought that Huck and Tom had drowned? He had a "steamboat" with a "cannon" being fired off of it while "people" cried on shore. He never described any of them. I've tried this once or twice myself. I would like to believe that it worked well for me, but having never written anything to completion I have no real way to judge, but my first readers haven't commented on it, which means that I must be doing it right as far as they're concerned.

Dave Freer said...

Chris, I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't trying to do this, with minimalist but effective description of details on the frame, calling different senses into play to focus that picture, using little tricks of language to re-inforce the type of setting the reader expects. I don't think I am either a natural or a master of this. I just work at it. The one big danger is over-do making the reader do the imagining - and then not having things the way they imagined. The other problem, of course is that some readers have little or no imagination or experience to draw on. They can't imagine a hill if they've never seen one. A horse is a car, not a warm, horsey smelling, living carrier-of-humans.

Dave Freer said...

Jim - what sticks in my mind about that scene was the way Twain inserted details to make it feel precise and specific -- mercury in loaves of bread (to make the corpse float), sticks in my mind and it must be 20 years since I last read that.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, I'll agree with both Matapam about Hemmingway's 6 words and Chris K's comments about Dragon's Ring. I'll add any number of your posts -- and Barb's as well -- on your Flinders blog. You manage to transport me to the island with very few words. But your imagery is phenomenal. I could see you hopping around as you put on your wellies only to find the one was, er, occupied. Sarah's Musketeer Mysteries and her Refinishing Mysteries do as well. Anyone who has read Dipped, Stripped and Dead can see E running down the street, stark naked, pursued by Dyce et al. But you can also see the cars speeding up and down the street as he approaches the intersection. You can smell the aromas of home-cooked food coming from The George, etc. That sort of immersion into the world of the book is what I look for and what I strive for. I guess what I'm saying is I want to be you guys when I grow up -- even if I am older than the both of you ;-)

C Kelsey said...

Amanda,

Funny enough, the imagery that Sarah has written that sticks with me the most... Tom nipping into a frozen burger because he's so protein starved after a shift. Oh yes, Sarah and Dave both have an absolute gift of painting mental pictures.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda - smells and the images they evoke are a very powerful tools. Smell is something that is so basic to vertebrates (even those with hay-fever) thatit works at whole different level.

Chris McMahon said...

I think we all generate are own images, but it is surprising how often images evoked by work actually converge. I guess that is the trick - somehow conveying the feel while being just heavy enough on the detai. I guess one example is Tolkein - so many people agreed that the movies got the settings/landscapes right. So obviously there was common denominators in the imaginings.

WangZheng259 said...

Dave,

IIRC, There was a purported military tell all of the obviously fake variety a while back. (It kind of left me with the urge of writing something even more over the top at the time, with junk about enlisting in a MOS formally titled 'Terrorist' [18T] or 'Babykiller'. I don't think there is a way to do it that would be entertaining without risking having people beleive it.) Some of the fakers can be found out because they say things like 'Marine Special Forces Seal', which is obviously wrong if you've paid the US armed forces any attention. Anyway, one analysis I read of this particular one was from someone who had been involved in grading a lot of college english papers. He figured it was probably largely fabricated because the writer had not included any sensory data on smells, which would tend to color one's memories of such events if they actually occured.

I have had times where my ear/nose/sinus issues meant that I had no noticable sense of smell, but everything I've read suggests that it is tied deep into memory.

You seem to be talking here more about scenic detail, but I think it also applies to worldbuilding.

Dave Freer said...

Chris, if we didn't have a shared set of images in our heads (not the same, but similar enough for us to converse, there would be no civilization, let alone no books :-)

Dave Freer said...

WangZheng259 it is curious when looking at the sizes of the different lobes of the brain in different species - the more primitive and unchanged the vertebrate, the bigger the lobes associated with smell are. So for instance in shark brains they're huge as a proprtion ofthe brain. They don't actually get any smaller - it's the other lobes - particularly those associated with sight that get larger. Smell is one of the most powerful and basic of senses for good reason.

Dave Freer said...

Oh - WangZheng259 - while this has drifted to some extent into description it could as well apply to world building.

Kate said...

Pratchett (of course - I'm not sure there's anything he doesn't do brilliantly). This Dave Freer person and that Sarah Hoyt one aren't slouches, either.

Smell is a big one - mention the smell of sun-baked earth (for instance) and most people are immediately in an open space on a sunny day and can feel the sun on their skin.


The nasal cacophony of Ankh-Morkpork is a whole other world, of course...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I used to describe things step by step. Draw One In The Dark came at the end of that phase. I wanted you to see the same booths, the same formica, the same parking lot. I didn't realize I had changed till I read this post. Now I tend to describe more from the inside: smell, sound, the cold on your skin. Of course, I must give minimal touches so you fill them in. For instance -- and oh, I'm REALLY wrestling with an angel -- in the current book, I hope to give a broad panorama of a city in ruins, a fallow and ruined countryside, but other than the objects my characters interact with: altar, steps, ruined cottage, I THINK the only scenary I mention are the broken crosses atop cathedrals. Now, since I'm still finishing this and the beta readers have only read the first half, who knows if I've succeeded.
As for someone who does it with very few touches: Barry Hughart in his alternate China series.

heteromeles said...

Personally, I'd suggest two books: Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and Wallace's Malay Archipelago, with Origin of Species for an added bonus.

Why?

First off, they were all best sellers in their day. I don't think many authors get to sell out an entire press run in a single day (see the Origin), and they're in print a century or more later, so they're worth reading from that viewpoint alone.

These are books whose descriptions have changed the way our society sees reality to this day.

But more generally, I read a lot of natural history, biology, and travelogues, because these are books that focus on describing reality, and I think it's more useful to look at how they capture things and use those techniques in fiction.