Image
The Japanese Bridge at Giverny

When Claude Monet completed his work ‘The Japanese Bridge at Giverny’ he was almost blind.

Edgar Degas suffered from an eye disease which warped his vision.

When Ridley Scott brought ‘Alien’ to the screen the suffuse light he employed turned H.R. Geiger’s design for a rapacious predator from a man in a rubber suit with a head modeled on a human penis into an extremely convincing creature of menace.

I used to build scratch models for clients.  Since the primary motive was money, I quickly learned that ‘toys’ are despised and the differences between enthusiasts’ objects of fantasy and commercially produced pieces of plastic are very clearly defined.  A successful replica must not only conform to requirements of scale and detail, but also fit into the diorama of their imagination.  The subtleties – knowledge of their planned light source as well as the general ambience needed for the piece – introduce an ‘attitude’ you must follow precisely.  Whilst applying finishes the model must be placed in correct light in the client’s desired position and color used to emphasize areas of light and shade.   Agents often need to be added to the paint – talcum powder and so on – to lend texture.

Even with so much attention to detail, I would not have avoided the ‘toy’ accusation, had it not been for the advice of an experienced (and very good) modeler.  While you apply the finishes, he told me, you should deliberately blur your vision.  Work with eyes half closed.   Imagine the ship behind the spray of a storm, or the transporter approaching through swirls of dust.

  ‘Toys’ become ‘models’ by dimming and blending; by creating an effect which is as strong or even stronger than the subject.  The detail is the layer behind the truth.  The truth is the dust that gets in your eyes, the storm that brings confusion and danger.

It is my belief that the abiding view most of us share of life is an impressionistic one; not that we go around with our eyes half closed but that we gain only a fleeting essential core of information from the things we see.  In the course of a day we see so much!  Detail overload, I am sure, is a mistake too many writers are prone to make.

Yes, the detail needs to be there, and it needs to be accurate, but it can mostly be implied rather than stated.  Writing a landscape does not and should not require depiction of every bend in every road, or every house, or every hump and bump.  These are our gifts to the reader, for him to do with as he wishes.  However, we should have a map, and the few references to specifics we make must conform.

Descriptive writing should appeal to all the senses: sure, but once you place dog pooh in front of the reader you don’t need to tell him it stinks.   Once you tell him the top of a hill is shrouded in mist he does not need to be told it is a high hill.  A room wherein a voice echoes describes itself. As long as he knows the letter is written on vellum he knows how it will respond to his touch.

Too often we force information on the reader that should be left to his imagination.  Our writing should be the fuel, not the flame.  Our art is to provide focus upon the vague shape in the mist that will become the character he loves; the character who will come alive inside his head.  Our gift, if we have it, is to offer Degas’ quirkiness of form,  Monet’s fierce defiance, or Van Gogh’s exuberant hand.

 

10 Comments

  1. Well said. Too much description takes a reader out of the story. Not enough, and the reader doesn’t know where he/she’s at. I read a book by a popular novelist where every detail down to the color of the lamps was described. Could’ve used a touch of editing…

    Like

  2. Being that my site is non-fiction that is exactly what I try to do (keep my opinions to myself) – just report the facts and be the fuel. I am thrilled when someone comments that I sparked their curiosity.

    Like

  3. Fascinating ideas. In my latest mss, I have an AI who sees everything–all those details you talk about. And for him, they’re all important, because he’s not human.

    Interesting post.

    Like

    1. What a subject that is! I have the feeling one day soon the differences between human and artificial intelligence will assume vital importance. In a sense we can claim we created the robot, Given opportunity, how would a robot set about creating us?

      Like

      1. Now there’s a thought. Hmm… You also have sent my mind to the differences between humans and robots–much like Jane Goodall tried to define the difference between ape and man and kept failing. I wonder if that’s where we’re headed.

        Like

  4. In a way I hope it is. The future seems to be evolving all at once and in our own time. The way forward is becoming a hall of mirrors – each day a new distortion of the real, a different twist. Quite how AI will splice into the picture is a mystery to me at the moment. Plenty of scope for a plot!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.