Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How tall is a giant?

To be honest, I didn't really agree with all of the quotes I posted yesterday in my Thor-bashing.  Nearly all, yes.  But the one about mutant smurf NBA stars?  Nah, I didn't have a problem with the height of the frost giants, but the quote did give me an amusing mental image, so I included it.  Mental images being the topic for today, I reprised it: mutant smurf NBA stars.  Awesome. 

So how tall do you think giants are?  Clearly,what I saw as eight or nine feet wasn't enough to satisfy the commenter I quoted.  Would ten have been enough?  Twenty?  As tall as Godzilla?  All of those heights make Andre the Giant fairly puny at a mere seven feet four inches of shortness, but nobody that I know of objected to his title...not to his face, anyway.  I don't mean to ridicule...at least, not as a primary theme.  But not having an objective measure lodged in reality to answer the question "How tall is a giant?" we kind of have to go off of our own mental images. 

That reliance on mental imagery is one of the significant differences between film and books.  In a book, when the author tells you the dragon is large and blue, you form a mental image of what Sephira might look like.  Later, when you watch the movie, you don't get the opportunity to have your own mental image, and if you've read the book, and the image in front of you clashes with the mental one you built, you get to do what I did: complain that Sephira is too small.  Yes, the cameraman and director have a lot of power over what you see in terms of lighting, closeness, image frame, and perspective, but when it comes down to it you see what you see.  The blue frost giant in Thor's case looks kinda like a mutant smurfy NBA player, or he doesn't, depending more on how you think a mutant smurfy NBA player might look than on how the giant appears. 

In books, though, the author has an amazing degree of power and responsibility to portray the image, not in a physical format, but in that mysterious "mind's eye."  "Thor's band of heroes walked in and fought the frost giants" doesn't do much for it.  It's not descriptive enough.  On the other hand, "Thor's band of heroes saw the frost giant king for the first time.  The nine foot six inch tall being had medium-shade blue skin with darker blue patterns on the skin of his face and other parts of his body.  He was muscular with well-defined biceps and pectoral muscles, though he was seated so the heroes couldn't tell how toned his lats or quads were.  His teeth were white, though two were crooked due to a lifetime of lack of good dental care, and so...."  Blah, right?  I mean, the author might be gonna make a point about the lack of dental care and so that might be relevant point, but describiness is bad.  Have you ever considered why, though?  Why does it get irritating when an author lays out every detail?  I think it's because we actually like to create images ourselves.  The whole point of reading books, for me and probably for many of you, is to escape into my own imagination...not the author's. 

Thus, an author's job is to give us enough detail to allow us to fill in our mental images, but not so much detail that the prose superimposes itself on them.  Right? 

Problem is, that's harder than it sounds.  I've found myself going through my own writing, examining it for the right amount of description.  It's hard to tell, really.  I know what the scene looks like in my own mind's eye.  When Mars dresses in his godly regalia to take Crystal to Olympus, he's wearing a very military-ish suit in red tunic over black pants.  Gold embroidery hits the details up, and he's accented it with a gold sash and belt. 

Now, what do you see?  What's embroidered on the red tunic?  Did your mind create some bold abstract patterns, or perhaps a more martial pattern, or did it just jumble a bit of gold on the picture and say "embroidery there" like mine would have if I weren't the author?  It's actually gold dragons, at least in my mind, but...does it matter?  If you are fine with the god of war wearing a red tunic embroidered with kittens...hey, I say go with it.  Whatever floats your shotgun, man.

The great authors do it seemingly effortlessly.  Have you ever noticed how sparingly MZB actually describes the scenery of Darkover?  Probably not.  I hadn't, till I started thinking about the topic of descriptiveness.  But the great one doesn't really get into too much description. 

The three-room apartment was a better domicile than most ordinary Terrans possessed, but Herm had grown up in Aldaran Castle, with stone walls around him, and great, roaring hearths sending out gusts of scent-laden sooty, heated air....  But the scentless, stifling atmosphere of the apartment, which was warm all the year round because of the central controls of the building....

Nice passage, and from it I get a good mental image of both Aldaran Castle and the apartment that Herm is in now.  What color stone was in Aldaran Castle?  Grey, I think, but you might prefer brown.  MZB didn't take the choice away from us, anyway, and frankly, it doesn't matter.  Should she have specified where the hearths are?  If the location of one is key to the story, sure, but otherwise, hey, it's up to you.  Well, us. 

In any event, description is a learned skill.  It doesn't come naturally, which is probably why most of the blogs and commentary I've read about 'why newbie authors suck' identify descriptiveness as the number one flaw.  To do it well is hard.  It requires the author to do something we don't often do as humans...lift ourselves out of our own brain and put ourselves into the brain of the one I take after Asimov in calling the Gentle Reader.  Every description a newbie writes must go under a microscope...is it descriptive enough?  Does it leave enough to the reader's mind?  Would Gentle Reader enjoy reading it, wish you had said more, or get irritated because you took the choices away? 

I guess I must admit that nobody ever told me this would be easy....

Word Count: 66,500 (ish)

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