Thursday, December 25, 2008

Been There, Done That, Got Rained on

weather report--descriptions, often found at beginnings of novels and short stories, but also in chapter beginnings, where writers describe weather conditions with such profundity and eclat as to undercut the presence of characters and story; an attempt to convince readers that they are in the presence of an author who truly knows how to write; an authorial attempt to infuse thematic content into a narrative.

Weather can and often does have demonstrable effect on story and the characters within it, but--to use a pathetic fallacy--appreciates a moderate, unhyperbolic hand in the rendering. Storm clouds may indeed gather ominously if they are harbingers of meteorological events; they are not needed to symbolize difficulties in the lives of the characters.

landscape--descriptions of locales, settings, and geographical phenomena which are included in dramatic narrative as evidence that the reader is in the presence of a writer who is familiar with travel writing and/or metaphor. With the advent of Google, Wikipedia, and other Internet search engine-type sources, as well as a flourishing industry in hard copy travel guides, readers are often familiar with most geographical settings, have had numerous occasions to read of the experiences and insights characters have when looking down from an airplane at metropolitan, polar, desert, and ocean vistas.

In similar fashion, many readers have experienced visits to hospitals, motels, hotels, lawyer's offices, super markets, criminal courts, shopping malls, and similar institutions, precluding detailed descriptions. One good reason for detailed description of such places is when the opposite to the expectation of them obtains: "it was a remarkably low-key setting for such a high-price attorney," "for a cheap motel, there was a radiant cleanliness and not a trace of a cockroach."

Writing description about such places, the author is well advised to select one memorable detail that convinces him of the authenticity of the landscape. Even in description of landscape, significant individual detail evokes a sense of the narrator's actual presence in the locale, yet another reminder that evocation trumps description in fiction.

occupation--conveying with plausibility the profession, occupation, artistry, and state of career development in a character. In many novels of mystery or suspense, private investigators or security persons have had some career as sworn police officers, sheriffs, or as federal agents, others still have come to their work with a history in military police. Lawyers have attended various types of law schools and have been admitted to practice in specific locales through the gatekeeper of the bar exam. Hairdressers, barbers, manicurists, and stylists are required to obtain licenses before they can perform in many states. A head chef, interviewing a subordinate, will probably want to see the subordinate's knives and how they are cared for. Before assigning a profession, occupation, artistry, and experience to a character, the writer is well advised to check plausible standards the character must possess before setting the character to work. This understanding may provide the writer with an entire dimension of behavior for the character, having a direct effect on how that character thinks, feels, and behaves. As an exaggerated extreme, imagine a butcher, having gone through apprenticeship and risen through the ranks in a high-profile market chain, developing an aversion to the meat and organs he or she must deal with, to the point of becoming a vegan. For further exaggerated extremes, imagine all minor characters who are service oriented (wait persons, delivery persons, janitorial persons) with walk-on roles in stories as wannabe actors, photographers, painters. Imagine possible conflicts between psychologists (with PhD.D. degree) and psychiatrists (with M.D. degree). Imagine potential rivalry between a psychiatrist with Freudian orientation and a psychiatrist with Jungian orientation. If you needed cosmetic surgery, would you consult a "mere" surgeon or one who was board certified in cosmetic surgery? If your character is a classically trained musician, for whom did she audition and fail to please? If your character is a jazz musician whose instrument is a reed, how did he keep his reeds moist before appearing?

Actors carefully research the working habits of characters they are to portray, often learning such arcane things as how to throw a curve ball in baseball, how to get a tone out of a bag pipe, how to do things as a doctor or nurse would do them; their researches bringing a quality of reality and plausibility to their performance. Writers need to do no less than study the job for the details that will bring the job to the page.


Lori Witzel said...


"Writing description about such places, the author is well advised to select one memorable detail that convinces him of the authenticity of the landscape."

For whatever random reason, that sentence brought to mind a vivid image of a rural town's not-quite empty main street lot, the buildings scraped down to foundation and rusty bits, with one lone and dirty pot-holder sitting on the concrete.

Thanks for always sparking something new and surprising in my mind's eye.

Querulous Squirrel said...

Inspecting of knives? Obviously will be suspected of figuring as a murder weapon and of course owner would be innocent (though knife may not be). Conflict between Ph.D.'s and M.D.'s? No conflict. Ph.D.'s are dirt and get paid half as much. Weather? The worse the weather the happier I have always felt. I would not do well in California. New England is perfect. It's always too miserable out, hot or cold, for anyone to have any fun. Excellent setting for a workaholic.