Tag Archives: musing

To Describe, or Not

I haven’t written or shared a ton about my current project, but if you’re a regular reader, you know it’s sci-fi.

Which I love.

Two of my top five movies of all time are science fiction (The Matrix and Back to the Future, in no particular order), so writing in the same genre, even if it were never to come to the light of day, sends thrills up the spine of my nerdy secret (yeah, not so secret) self. But film sci-fi and novel sci-fi are two different beasts, aren’t they? Because with the one you get to see everything as a director envisions it, but in the other you must create the images yourself based on what the author describes.

And there are pros and cons. Star Wars is what it is because of the dramatic and impressive visuals that linger forever in the minds of its devotees. (I’m talking about a starship that seems to go on forever, a space station the size of a moon, a battle with swords made out of fargoing light). And I’ve read a Star Wars novel or two, and they’re good, but they’re different. They don’t have to describe a lightsaber because we know what it looks like.

So, in my novel, there’s time travel. And there are robots. And there is other vaguely sciencey stuff floating around in the background.

And at every turn, I find myself wondering: how much do I need to describe this thing?

I picture the story unfolding in my own mind, and I see the characters and the places a certain way, but part of the magic of a book is that you get to decide for yourself to an extent what everything looks like. You get a sense of the whole, for example, in a book like Harry Potter: you can picture Hogwarts and its main features, but you don’t get into the grainy bits of detail. You don’t see the scorch marks on the brick from thousands of misfired spells, but you can imagine them. You don’t smell the faint musty funk on the community brooms in flying class, but you can make it up for yourself.

So as I’m writing my book, I keep crashing into this problem. Because description slows down storytelling, my usual tendency is to eschew it as much as possible. (See any of my Flash Fiction offerings.) But I also know how powerful it can be, and how much a good description helps to ground the reader in time and place. So, when the protagonist is picking through the long-abandoned house of the deranged and vanished eccentric who lived on the edge of town, how much do I need to describe the cobwebs on the walls, the countless volumes on physics and quantum theory scattered in all rooms of the house, the closets full of discarded, half-fused mechanical bits, the strange humming structure on the roof? Is it enough to say that the robot looks like half a tractor with a head like the front of a 1978 Buick, or do you want to see its feet like cinder blocks, its clumsy crab-claws-in-oven-mitt hands, its sparkling unstainable not-exactly-chrome finish? Do you want me to tell you about the faint whiff of burning hair that trails in its wake, or the fact that the ground trembles ever so slightly at its every plodding step?

And, given that it’s sci-fi and some funky pseudo-science-ish things are happening, how much should I try to describe that not-actually-science? Have the inventor hit my protagonists with a stream of technobabble and invented vaguely scientific terminology to give the concepts more depth or believability? Or just skim over the explanations of how any of this stuff works, throw any grounding in plausibility to the wind and, Sharknado-like, just expect my readers to get over it and get on for the ride?

Where’s the freaking line, in other words? How much description does a reader really need? How much is too much?

TheMe (a Quandary)

That’s right, enough screwing around. This post is all about THE ME.  The big ol’ me, in all my… whats that?  Oh.  OHH.

Theme.  *ahem.*

Yeah, I guess that makes more sense.

Now, I’m not here to get all heavy-handed about theme.  I may be an English teacher and a kind-of-avid reader and a self-professed almost-amateur writer, but I don’t think the world or any narrative starts and stops with theme.  Not even a rolling stop.  Not even an oh-I-didn’t-know-that-was-a-stop-sign non-stop.  It’s important, sure.  But there’s more to life than theme.

But not that much more, right?  I mean, for any narrative, there’s a theme.  Any story, any poem, any six-second video of a guy texting and walking into traffic and getting obliterated by a bus has a theme.  Theme bleeds out of the story’s every orifice, it leaks out through the eyes and the nostrils and the earholes like a thick Ebola slurry.  It infuses every chapter, every sentence with its rosy, heady fog.  It’s there and unavoidable, like a screaming baby on a 5-hour flight.  You can’t have literature without it.

But how do you create it?

No, I’m really asking.  How do you craft theme?  Or, maybe more importantly, should you even try?

Theme is bouncing around the inside of my skull thanks to a conversation I had a few nights ago with a friend of mine about a story she wants to write.  Interestingly, she and I come from entirely different schools of storybuilding.  Like, she’s been pondering this idea for weeks if not months, has characters and names and costumes and really specific details of the set mapped out, and I… well, when I have an idea, I get about as far as thinking, “maybe it’d be cool if this thing happened and there was a guy with a thing like that” and then I start writing.  She’s analyzing possibilities and eventualities and the implications of interactions between these two characters and the symbolism of this character’s color scheme and I’m wondering if in my story one of the characters can get away with another fart joke.

So I shared with her my particular thoughs on attempting to convey a grand message through the narrative: it feels wrong.  Or, rather, it feels wrong to start there.  I should further clarify that it feels wrong to start there for me.  I feel as if theme, much like the all-female non-reproductive dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, will find a way.  Like weeds in a garden or mildew in a bathroom, it’s always there, lurking just out of sight, waiting for you to neglect it for a scant moment so that it can spring forth fully formed.  Trying, therefore, to cultivate theme makes about as much sense as trying to grow weeds (not weed, STAY WITH ME PEOPLE).  Why put all that effort into something that’s going to happen anyway?  Isn’t it a waste of my time trying to encourage mildew to grow when I could conceivably be building entirely new bathrooms?

But then I take a moment and I wonder what my story is all about.  I mean what it’s about.  You know, the big about, the one that seems super-important after four or five whiskey sours and you’ve just gotten finished talking about how every speck of dust in the universe is connected to every other speck and THAT’S why the government puts those chemicals in the water, man, to keep us from being absorbed by the cosmic ether, even though that’s obviously the next stage in human evolution.  You know, what my story’s ABOUT, man.  And it’s about sticktoitiveness, it’s about determination and the will to overcome, it’s about magical typewriters and Greek gods and mobsters.  It’s about believing in yourself and accomplishing anything, as George McFly once put it.  Isn’t it?

I mean, that message is there, certainly.  It’s a part of the story like bones are part of a person.  It’ll shine through when the editing and the rewriting and the rebuilding are done.  Right?

But what if it doesn’t?  What if, like the tin man, I forgot to build the heart into this thing, and I’m trying to bring it forth into the world to rust and wander aimlessly following the whims of some tart from Kansas?  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  You can’t build a house without a blueprint unless you don’t much care about trifles like structural integrity or roofs that don’t leak or, you know, functional plumbing (there’s a joke in there somewhere about how my story is total unredeemable sharknado, but I won’t be the guy to make it).  I’m counting on the theme to spring forth like flowers after a spring rain, but I’ve salted the earth with my failure to plan ahead.  To nutshell all this, I suddenly feel a bit silly about professing any sort of “expert-ness” about any of this writing business.

At any rate, I dispensed all this “advice” to her.  Put thoughts of theme aside for now; focus on making the story compelling first and let the theme follow after.  Upon further review, I wonder if I sound like that guy at the party wearing the bellbottoms and insisting that they’re coming back into style.  What, after all, do I know about any of this except that I’m having a heck of a lot of fun giving myself headaches and tearing my hair out over whether this story is ever going to actually work.

So, I’m really asking.  Where does theme come from?  Will it bubble to the surface like a bath fart or does it have to be coaxed out of the darkness like a feral kitten?  Do you have to plan for it for a theme to resonate or does it just happen like water spots on your wineglasses?  What, in short, makes theme work?

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