1. BillyxRansom

    BillyxRansom Active Member

    Jun 3, 2008
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    verisimilitude in description?

    Discussion in 'Descriptive Development' started by BillyxRansom, Jan 4, 2022.

    this excerpt, from Bone Shard Daughter, by Andrea Stewart:

    He didn’t speak this disappointment when I answered his question. But he said it with narrowed eyes, the way he sucked on his already hollow cheeks, the way the left side of his lips twitched a little bit down, the movement almost hidden by his beard.

    reading this, we see she outright says that the response to a question was "disappointment". then she describes what that disappointment looks like. my question: does this description ring true to you, when justifying what the character's disappointment looks like? and, i guess secondarily, does that matter? what if Andrea was the only person in the world who interprets disappointment as looking like this? would that matter? would that completely corrupt any attempt at verisimilitude in writing this description?

    basically, is description, holistically, subjective?
  2. evild4ve

    evild4ve Senior Member

    Oct 17, 2021
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    In a 1st-P pov, yes, description is going to be subjective to the narrator. But the narrator should be authentic - they might misinterpret (or be unreliable about) the cheek-sucking being a sign of disappointment, but it's bad form for them to describe things that weren't there and didn't happen.

    I can't decide if I like the excerpt. It tells, and then shows. One of the two sentences is redundant in light of the other - unless it's really saying the narrator is wrong and she just thinks the man is disappointed. Or that she over-focuses on and reads meaning into miniscule gestures.

    If both sentences are wholly-true though, I'm not sure I want a lengthy word-picture of what a disappointed face looks like. I'd prefer the disappointed character to present his disappointment consciously in words (or dignified silence), to give him his share in the narrative.
    He's backed-out of it currently, and this is unkind to him when he's being more expressive than the narrator. He might even be upstaging the narrator - with his silent cheeks saying more than she says. That's then a charge against Andrea Stewart: in this passage her narrator is only valuable as a window into a man's cheeks.
  3. BlitzGirl

    BlitzGirl Contributor Contributor

    May 30, 2018
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    I dunno, I kinda like this form of conveying information. But even if the PoV character only described the physical reaction this man has to her response, she's going to bring up the fact that he's "disappointed" sooner or later. You can't just describe the look on a character's face without telling the reader what it means to the PoV character. I think people get too hung up on "show is good, tell is bad" mentality that's been drilled into every reader growing up. Even if someone may consider this excerpt redundant at points, it still reeks of characterization and paints a vivid image in my head. We know the man is disappointed right now - it's enhanced by understanding how he shows that disappointment.

    But maybe I am too lenient and have an unpopular opinion. I don't read fiction looking to critique it, I just want interesting writing, a good story, and intriguing characters and world.
  4. Also

    Also Student of Humanity Supporter

    Aug 25, 2021
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    Eastern United States
    Currently Reading::
    A Separation (2017, Katie Kitamura) ; Die Sünderin (1999, Petra Hammesfahr)
    John Gardner agreed with you, BlitzGirl.

    I think that what I call Critique Group Subculture tends to ruin us as readers, replacing organic, holistic, and largely emotional response with a dissective, analytical, checklist-based mentality — in short replacing taste with standardizing, conventionalizing, homogenizing, and mediocritizing doctrine or even dogma. The analogy to figure skating often comes to mind. It can be a beautiful performing art, but it's graded as a sport, entirely on technicalities with little regard for beauty. What beauty manages to persist in it is almost accidental — and has little correlation to the scoring of a performance. The way that insiders see it is almost completely disconnected from the things that viewers enjoy in it. Insiders' appreciation for its beauty has been ruined by their system of analyzing and scoring.

    I remember once showing a short story written by an acquaintance to a shrink I was close to who was also an avid consumer of fiction and who often gave me excellent comments on my own writing. The writer in question adhered strictly to a philosophy of showing the manifestations of emotions without naming them, and never used the verb feel — this writer was someone with a minor name in a certain subgenre, who has spoken on it at conferences — and I found the overall effect quite unsatisfying. My shrink friend's first reaction was "Is this character supposed to have Asperger's? Alexithymia? She seems completely disconnected from her own emotions — she goes through the motions without feeling them." This was after a scene in which the character (among other things) scrambled backward across a sofa to escape an unwelcome advance. (Lo! these several years later, I know that such an effect is almost inevitable if you show most emotions without naming them or getting into the thoughts behind them.)

    In fact, it was the writer who was at least a borderline Aspie, at least in my opinion as the son of one, but it was methodology and received wisdom rather than the author's own psychological makeup that caused the unnatural impression in their character.

    The legendary professor of creative writing and Bread Loaf faculty member John Gardner wrote in his 1983 The Art of Fiction:

    (emphasis mine)

    That's worth reading several times for its hidden complexity. He also emphasizes often that, in his words, "There are no rules" in art.

    Show Don't Tell is one of those things you tell a novice author. Fetishising it or any of the Critique Group Rules regarding How We Write Novels leads to Critique Group Fiction that reads differently from published fiction. Such fetishising is a way of taking something difficult and intuitive and making it seem easier and more objective.

    Most mass-market fiction feels thinly written to me, like taking a walk down a Hollywood "Main Street" set — everything the minimum required, all false, all directly serving a specific purpose, which is always (in American fiction) story above everything else, at the expense of texture, depth, and even character. And by story I mean specifically "what happens?" and "how does it end?"

    I really hunger for less efficient, less expeditious writing to read.

    Take for instance Smilla's Sense of Snow, which I loved from nearly its first pages. It was revelatory, as the best books always are. Although it's a semi-literary work, there might still be a temptation to go through it with a Critique Group Rules checklist and probably remove half of the entire book, and dumb down the rest of it to what we today call a 12th grade reading level, which we used to call a 10th grade reading level before the Educational Testing Service started its 1970s-era easing of the scoring of its Scholastic Aptitude Tests. (No, formal classification of reading level is not directly linked to the ETS or its SATs, but the timing in the change of measurement is similar for obvious reasons. You can't call something 12th grade level if 12th graders no longer read at that level.)

    And above all, cut all that crap (from Smilla) about Euclid's Elements — I mean WTF does that have to do with the story? And who even reads that shit, and nobody understands it! You're ruining the book with it! </snark>

    What would be left might attract a new cohort of readers, but it would certainly alienate those who loved the book.

    I know it's not fair to apply Critique Group Rules to "literary" works — defined specifically as those written outside the restrictions, conventions, values, reference points, and templates of mass-market and most genre fiction — in fact it would be absurd. But it was when I did that exercise with parts of masterpieces like Daniel Martin (one of Gardner's favorites of the 20th century, and also for a long time my own favorite) and Norwegian Wood and a few other unambiguously literary works that I realized I simply had to divorce myself from Critique Group Subculture, even though I miss the people and the social aspects of it and still occasionally attend for that reason. It was too pernicious, and had led me to change early drafts of a dozen chapters in exactly the wrong direction.

    So Show Don't Tell? It depends on what you're writing and who you're writing it for. Looking at readers as a continuum (rather than sharply divided into literary or non-literary) it's still true that the more sophisticated your readership, the less expectation — indeed the less tolerance — they have for a high-showing approach. Certainly the essence of most literary fiction since the mid-1900s is artful telling with sufficient showing to give the narrative depth. What constitutes sufficiency can vary widely, but it's mostly the quality of the telling that differentiates one literary novel from another.

    And no matter who you're writing for, only the very most basic emotions can be conveyed without naming them. Whether they should be named is another question, and an argument steeped in doctrine and dogma.

    I say forget the dogma, study the books you love best in the genre in which you write, look how they handle the dilemmas you encounter in your own writing, and follow their lead where it feels right to you, or diverge where you feel inspired to do so. But don't lose the ability to listen to your inner ear. Don't let it get ruined by Critique Group Rules.
    Last edited: Jan 30, 2022
    B.E. Nugent and evild4ve like this.

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