This is the second in a series of posts by author Floyd Hyatt. I’m so fortunate to have his generous contributions and advice.
Illustrating Perceptions in the Novel
Building imagery for a story has several aspects. Aspects complicated in the sense that usually the views are pulled from more than one perspective. There is the narrator’s perspective of what is seen, and also the visualizations sponsored by the lead and other characters that inhabit the story.
Human perception is, in some respects, a matter of focus. The mind interprets reality, and codifies it. We cognitively “see” largely what is considered important by this process. It is a seamless process, cognitively invisible to us. A tire lying on its side in a driveway appears round to us, for instance, even though in reality, the image of it on the retina is an ellipse. We may, or may not recognize, or “see” the tread pattern on the tire, depending on length of our view time, depending on what we are intent on looking for in the scene, what occupies us at the time, many things. The mind also fills blanks in our perception, inferring similarities provided by visual cues, that may not even be present in the current image – the basis for many “optical Illusions”. It is quite likely the extent of variation between what is “seen” as opposed what is demonstrably “there” in the world may be even greater than we currently understand. These fine discriminators aside, it is a concept of use, and important to a writer.
This largely applies to third person point of view narration. The author can choose to use narrative descriptions to paint a picture of the general stage upon which the story is told, or only identify those aspects of it important to the story or scene. Both work, because the reader is familiar with the inherent process of human visualization. It is not a stretch of imaginative process for a reader to accept either a scan of the “set” or to focus on specific aspects of importance.
The thing to remember is, the narrator is not, in this case, a character in the tale. The description should avoid a focus that would be better attributed to a story character. That is, to keep in straight third POV, the narrator should not suddenly acquire the persona of a character or the character’s viewpoint, without attribution. Often, the general narrative scene, and the character’s view of it, may differ, and that difference may even help to define the character, be used as a device within the story.
General advice would include keeping your illustration detail to what sets the scene and only such details as highlight it to the story’s purpose. This mimics human perception, the picking and choosing the mind naturally does, and actually increases the internal visualization of the reader. Juggling too many details in print places a great interpretive burden on the reader, who now must juggle and fit many elements together before he can internally build the image, which can slow reading, and in some cases even keep the image from gelling at all.
The author is interpreting on paper an image he already has, the reader struggles to build an unknown image from what is presented. There are no hard, fast rules for this; it is a process writers struggle with and through. Consider the following narrated scene, built by Fred Saberhagen in Dominion:
Snider, Lieutenant of Homicide, was occupied at the moment with lighting a cigarette. Match flame glinted orange on his dark face, pale on the pink of his cupped palms. There were a couple of patrolmen in the alley also, one standing just on either side of the bright circle cast by the lamps that had been brought in to help with the photography.
Saberhagen delineates the detail of the hands of what we now know to be a detective of African ancestry, draws attention to match-light, and reflections which tells us it is dark out, lamp lit, and only mentions enough about the others there, to place them in the “set”. But the image is built; we can easily imagine the scene, the details mimicking, perhaps, those features to which the mind would naturally be drawn. The prime character’s perception of the scene is avoided, and is, as yet, undisclosed. Had the author tried to include a list of smaller objects, further details of dress, the body before him that is later described, within this single passage, we would be left to take it all in at one stroke and reorganize it in our mind before attempting to build an image. By which time, we would have been left with only a cerebral sketch, and not the image achieved here.
Perhaps the character later adds to it. Smells something, is irritated by something, etc. This would be non-narrative or character-driven description, in my book, even though still part of Third POV. Such description would be character-driven, -attributed description. Attributive description clearly is there to tell us something about the character as about anything else, and carries his/her personal stamp, not the narrative neutral view.
While a matter of taste, I appreciate this division in a story. It is, in essence, part of show versus tell, as I interpret that distinction to be. Tales are “told” by definition. We are, in fact reading them, after all. Thing is, a story must carry on the tale in words, that must be taken in one at a time, or in groups, and interpreted. They must tell that tale in such a way that my persistence of memory carries my focus on through the flow if it to its conclusion. Too many asides, or wandering detail, or unnecessary description, interferes with that journey, slows it, loses my sense of continuity inside the world presented. So for me, it is best the author give me a focus, and choose his details deliberately.
WRITING PROMPT: Describe a scene from the third-person neutral narrative point of view and the same scene from the character’s point of view.
JaneJuly 11, 2011 at 8:54am
Hi. I like your ideas. I, too, agree that less is generally more.
I have a theory about older, ‘classic’ writers (whom many of us reluctantly consumed for school) compared to present day writers:
In the past, a novel was as much a travelogue as a story. It was often read aloud to fascinated family members. Costumes and countries were lavishly described, because the readers and the writer did not have the billions of common frames of reference which we now have due to photography, TV, movies, internet, etc. It is much easier today to edit our descriptions and employ strategies of good writing such as Mr. Hyatt has proposed. Bye.
Marian AllenJuly 11, 2011 at 12:36pm
Excellent point about the novel being a travelogue as well as a story. I had never considered that before. You are SO SMART!
F.A.HyattJuly 13, 2011 at 12:06pm
We have all had the experience of being suddenly popped out of a story. A good reader sinks into the print, and images and motions form. A play unreels between our ears. Then suddenly. we are staring at words on a page. They are sensible words, complete thoughts, but the sense of inner experience is lost. The art of modern fiction is in keeping the play going. I think technique has progressed enough in modern times, where we are better at that than we used to be. There are many styles of narration, and some lend themselves more to visualization than others. Some are better at promoting the transfer of knowledge perhaps. Which is fine, but not the goal of most fiction writers these days. Classic works have much to tell us, and teach us. Those that survive time, the best of the best of those. But I like to think we have added something to the discipline over time, more than just a modern perspective.
MARIAN ALLEN · Postcards from Around and AboutJuly 12, 2011 at 6:47am
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JaneJuly 13, 2011 at 10:26am
Hi. You are too kind. 🙂
JaneJuly 14, 2011 at 9:11am
Mr. Hyatt, you are SO right.