I think I said something about writing just general posts a while back but never followed up. Mostly it is status updates and the stories themselves. So, here, have a brain dump!
I skim when I read. This always depends on different factors but, typically, I’ll skim. I don’t need five pages that describe a house the character(s) found. Or the… whatever. I don’t need to know what everything smelled like or how the grass was arranged just so or the trees or the sky or the etc… etc… unless it’s important for something. By all means, introduce the scene and the characters but don’t go overboard.
I’m looking at you, J.R.R. Tolkien. At the risk of incurring the wrath of millio- … okay, the ten people? The ten of you that accidentally stumble on my site when you’re innocently looking up, hmmm, heart-warming stories about dogs or wolves. So, at the risk of alienating my accidental visitors, I don’t like Tolkien’s writing. It’s incredibly dense. I read it in slow motion. With the Inception soundtrack (BUUUM-BUUUUUUUUUM!) playing in the background. Civilizations rise and fall while I slog through his stuff.
But, that’s the wonderful thing about writing – I don’t need to like his stuff. There are billions out there that do and that’s awesome. It’s just not me and not my style.
I write candy. Quick and fast and simple and easy and hopefully fun to read. I believe, personally, that I don’t need to write overly dramatic prose. I don’t need to try to impress people with my ability to look up words in a thesaurus. If I want to use pretty, multi-syllable words then I’ll use them in a poem. But if I want to write some things for the general public to read and enjoy? I’m fine with the basics, thanks.
We create worlds in our mind when we read. What we don’t do is (well, typically) pore over the words in order to mentally create a perfect holographic image of what we’re reading. I don’t need to tell you about every single freckle on a character’s face. Or the exact layout of a room. Does the character’s house have a lawn? A picket fence? What color? What type? Is their bathroom adjacent to the master bedroom and is it the only one in the house? How big is the sink? Do they have a vanity mirror? Are there drawers under the sink? What kind of shower curtain do they have?
Listen. If I tell you that a bathroom sink has drawers rather than just being a standing bowl style sink, it’s because a character needs to grab something from the drawer. Likewise, I don’t need to tell you everything about the living room. Does the character have a television? Is it LCD, LED or plasma? I dunno, what do you want it to be? What do you think it’ll be? If they never use it and it’s not important for me to establish anything (how rich they are, how tech-y they are, etc…) then I won’t mention it. You’ll know for sure they have a stereo if one of them turns it on but, otherwise? Use your imagination.
That’s a big difference between drawing and writing. With art, everything is there. You get an immediate picture of the scene. If the artist draws the living room, they can’t just not draw a television and then say “Oh, they have one but I didn’t draw it because I figured you’d just know it was right there on the detailed wall I drew.” It’s not the same. To be sure, perhaps they only draw a part of the living room but what they show is what you get. You don’t have to use your imagination for the scene they’ve presented. It’s right there.
Uh-oh, but, hey, you’re doing that anyway, aren’t you? Wondering about the characters. About their past. And what they’re like. What they’re thinking about. Automatically filling in the gaps between illustrated panels. We can’t help it because we’re hard-wired for continuity. If you take a picture and cover up a part of it, our brains will automatically fill in the blank as best as it can. It’s an evolutionary trait.
And that’s what happens when we read. We build the scene and visualize it because we can’t not. If I tell you that character is male, tall with short blond hair and an easy smile then you already have a picture of him. Do I need to go on? He has a scar on his left hand where he tried to catch a feral cat. It never healed properly and it runs along and around the base of his thumb. His left knee hurts sometime because he has a small bit of bone that juts out near the kneecap. Oh, did I mention he’s forty-five and losing some hair? He’s got stretch marks on his legs because he’s 6’5″ and he grew too fast as a child. His hands are surprisingly smooth and, although he’s tall, his fingers aren’t especially long. His second and third fingers are almost exactly the same length. He sometimes grows a beard but there’s a spot on the right side of his face (near his mouth) that never seems to grow much and a spot on the left side of his face (near his ear) that’s the same. His eyes are brown but lighten to amber near the pupil. His ears are held close to his head and the tips are rounded. He’s got a gut because he’s never had to exercise when he was younger. He had a fabulous metabolism that suddenly stopped working one day and now he just goes with it because he’s set in his routine. His nose is wide and slightly bent at the tip. He has twelve freckles on his face, about twenty on his right arm and thirty-two on his left. He has a small spray of white chest hair and blond arm and leg hair. Finally, he’s flat-footed and wears a size 11 1/2 US. Oh! Except let me tell you the exact position of the freckles covering him… (by the way, there’s one on his back that’s cancerous but he doesn’t know that yet).
Now, keep that description in mind in every scene he’s in. I won’t mention the details again but you need to picture him just like that the entire time because I’ve told you what he looks like and he’s *my* character. When I tell you that he reaches for something, I want you to visualize that scar and the size of his hands and fingers.
You won’t. He’ll become someone else in your mind. Reduced. He’ll be a tall, middle-aged blond guy with a gut. You’ll create your own image of him out of what’s important in the narrative that you take away from the story. And that’s fine. But, it’s also why I don’t feel the need to expound on my story.
I’ll tell you the important bits and trust you to create your own ‘movie’ as it goes. I’ll give you the core and you build on it. Is that scar important to the character up there? For his personality? Then maybe I’ll mention it by having his lover trace his/her finger along the length of it while they’re cuddling. They’ll ask and he’ll explain how he had to save a cat that was stuck in a chain link fence because he was worried it’d starve to death and die. You still won’t picture the scar in every scene but you will change his persona in your mind to a small degree. You know he’s gentle to cats and possibly other small animals and that will change the narrative more than trying to force you to remember that he has a scar on his hand.
And, that’s how I write. I’ll tell you what you need to know, set the scene in a general level (and sometimes with peculiar details if I think it’s warranted) and then I’ll let your brain do its thing. That’s why I don’t need to fill your head with continuous polysyllabic imagery. I can just as easily tell you that the characters are standing in a wide, green field with their clothes rippling around them as massive white fluffy clouds speed overhead. Farms dot the horizon. That’s plenty fine. I’m not doing homework for a writing class.
I write on a high school level (barely) according to the Flesch-Kincaid scale. And, yet, one of the biggest compliments my readers pay to me is that my stories flow so well and are so well written. And they love the characters because they feel real. The characters feel real because I give them emotions and dialogue and actions that feel real and not because I describe them in detail. My stories flow because I write what I need and leave the rest because neither of us needs it. Well written… well, sometimes that’d debatable :)
I found a quote a month or so back that made me really, really happy. It summed up my beliefs perfectly and was a relief to read that I wasn’t the only one with the same ideas.
William Faulkner wrote (about Ernest Hemingway): “[Hemingway] has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
Hemingway’s response: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
And that’s what I believe.