Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Descriptive Pause, A Narrative Sheep in Wolf's Clothing

If, as you believe, story can be described as an unrelenting series of actions and reactions until the last significant action, then, as you also believe, unnecessary details and heavy bouts of description may be described as inhibitors, if not outright obstacles.

You often consider that observation, which is truly an equation as well. The reader does indeed wish to know where the action is located, who appears to have the power in the action, and how the interaction plays out. But some of the most intense opposition you hear to those observations come from entry-level and intermediate students in the classroom, and from first-time authors in the editorial equivalent of the interview rooms from police TV shows. 

Details are an urgent necessity in most action-based story. Aren't they clues and hints? How would we know where we are, who is acting, who is being acted upon, and what things mean?

One possible answer, simple to you through its implications, emerges: Action relays the goals, intents, and outcomes. But this response becomes fuel squirted on smoldering coals. And what of those of us who love language? the students respond. Shouldn't style and pacing and, yes, even cadence, have some allowable places--note plural--in story? (When examined closely, this means language will be brought in more than once, made up and costumed as a critical trope known as The descriptive pause.

And yes, a number of highly successful authors, past and present, have produced longform works that are redolent of stylistic energy and imaginative cadence, at the same time advancing what many critics and academics call mimesis of a convincing sense of reality, and tempos that suggest human speech and thought patterns.

The received stylistic presence of any text, fact or the invention of fiction, plays an important role in the overall effect of the text. Two projects on which you had high degrees of control will illustrate the point. Although both are nonfiction, the examples hold because each represents a retelling from the specialized narrative language of professional information into language better suited for the lay reader.

In the first example, a noted civil procedures and torts attorney wrote a two-volume interpretation of new tort laws, their effects on attorneys, their clients, and related outcomes. You were in charge of finding a writer able to translate the text so that a lay audience would read it as a series of courtroom exchanges, confrontations, and outcomes. As well, the lay reader should be better able to see how the laws and strategies under discussion worked in general application. 

This effort, when published, was well received by reviewers in major metropolitan centers, by numerous public libraries, and by individual buyers in bookstores. Using another trade publishing standard for evaluation, this title "earned out;" there were sufficient sales to cover the advance in royalties given the author, to pay for the "ghost" writer, to cover the overhead and manufacturing costs associated with the publication, and a reasonable, if not grand profit for the publisher, a solid ROI (return on investment).

The second work was also a recasting of a work originally published for a segment of the medical profession known as cosmetic and reconstructive surgeons. This work appeared in print from a well-known publisher of scientific text and monographs; it was in this form essentially a text book. The title, suggested by the surgeon-author was The Cinderella Scalpel, its primary editorial focus meant to assure those in need of reconstructive surgery that competent, long-lasting results were possible. After your early consultations with the surgeon-author, you sought and received his approval for the added focus of a cautious approach to mere cosmetic goals, plus recommended standards for choosing a reconstructive or cosmetic surgeon.

Unfortunately, the surgeon author felt obligated to retain the writer of the scientific version, who resisted suggested changes in the use of language, so much so that he in no way captured the conversational quality of the surgeon. Your own mistake in the process was allowing the work to go to press using most of the ghost writer's text, a mistake that came back to haunt you when the early sales reports came in, augmented by the number of copies returned unsold by bookstores, and a dismal public library sale. 

The literal and figurative handwriting--"You have been held in the balance and found wanting"--came when the surgeon, while being interviewed on a Los Angeles TV station, was asked by the interviewer, "Will you please explain why you didn't write this book using the way you've been talking here?" The trade edition was allowed to go OP, out of print, not long after its publication, the title is not listed in any of the remainder services readily available, and at the next editorial meeting, the publisher admonished you, "Please, no more doctors with formal bedside manners."

Perhaps these examples demonstrate extreme takes on the matter. But the lesson remains, whether in fact, or the invented fact of fiction. Descriptions and explanations must be a significant part of the action. If they are not, story stops. When story stops, reader puts book down, perhaps never to return. Under less drastic circumstances, reader begins to skip and skim through the text.

Two immediate quick fixes for the descriptive pause:

1) Dialogue, either more contentious than usual or leading the reader to assume that two or more parties are agreeing to something each sees differently.

2) A quick return to sentences and paragraphs with action verbs.

The aspect you most enjoy when a student brings you some passage from a printed work as an indication of cadence, meter, even poetry in descriptive language, and you are immediately able to relate to consequences roiling within the story.


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