The Grass is Black/The Air is Pink

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#Writing

The Lingerie Theory of Narration (2)

The Problem of Overexposure

Clear description- of setting, of character- is fundamental to good fiction, and becoming as concrete as possible in description should be a writer’s first goal. Some writers know intuitively how much description is enough and how much is too much, but for others it’s an acquired skill. There are several useful things to remember in order to master it.

The first is the old saw that fiction is, at its heart, economical (stories more than novels, of course), and that one must choose material with a conservative, even sometimes miserly, touch. Description should therefore not be wasteful or redundant (unless you’re trying to make some thematic point by being repetive or maximal). One needs only to describe a house once, for example, as long as nothing has changed the second time we visit it. One needs only to say only once that the paint is flaking and that the tree is dying. And, as my former teacher John Barth, himself a maximalist, used to say, description needs to be “illustrative” rather than “exhaustive”, meaning that you need to give the reader information that is useful and thematically important rather than information that is merely compulsively comprehensive or too intently microscopic.

One secret to deciding if a particular passage of description is necessary to the story as a whole is to think of the story as an arrow pointing toward what Edgar Allan Poe called “the unified effect,” that moment when all the story’s elements come together. Does the particular passage of description point toward the unified effect or away from it? Whenever you encounter a passage of your own description about which you are unsure, ask yourself: What function does this passage have in this piece? What am I trying to achieve by putting this in, and what of any essential nature would be lost if I were to leave it out?

It would’nt do, for example, in a lingerie ad for hosiery, to have a model wearing an elaborately sequined and very showy full-length slip. If the unified effect is “buy these panty hose,” then the camera should focus on the panty hose and its closely related accoutrements. It’s a matter of remembering the overall goal of the work of art. It’s as simple as that.

words by: Julie Checkoway
to be continued…

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