Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Knocked Out by Weird Details

Cross-posted from my blog (since Kelly subtly chastised me for not doing this last time):

I’m still enjoying the book with the smoker [ See: Tate Hallaway's Blog: Personal Habits and Reader Sympathy], by the way, though I’ve run into something else that this author does that knocks me out of the story.

She over-shares.

It’s a strange phenomenon, and, I realized, one hundred percent related to my reaction to the nasty-details of the smoker’s habit. Because, if I wasn’t clear, the thing that most lost sympathy points for me as a reader wasn’t so much the smoking, per se, but the intimate details about it. Things I “saw,” like overflowing ashtrays, added just a bit too much realism for my comfort.

I wouldn’t think that it would be possible to knock a reader out of a story by writing a detail that’s accurate, but it happened to me twice in this book. Once, in the scene I previously described, and again in a moment after sex that was just a touch too real. Later, after some consideration, I ended up liking the later detail, but my initial reaction was “ewww!” which inadvertently knocked me out of the story.

Knocking a reader out of a story isn’t the same as making them uncomfortable in a self-actualization kind of moment. When an author stretches my mind, it’s not usually a painful jarring, “whoa, I have to put this book down for a second,” moment, it’s often an “ah-ha!” Either it’s an ah-ha that makes me look at something in a new way, or it’s an ah-ha, “so this was the author’s agenda” thing. Either way, getting knocked out of story is usually a fraction of a second when my reader brain tilts -- when I’m no longer IN the story, but suddenly aware that I’m reading a story.

This is often death for a story. Too many moments like that, and the book goes back on the shelf.

What’s weird to me about my experience with this particular book is that the knock-out moments I’ve experienced aren’t ones that “ring false,” (which is what usually kicks me out of a story), but those that are simply too graphic. I’m getting too much information about stuff I find kind of gross.

This realization distresses me. One of the things I always tell my writing students is that the way to universality is through truth in details. If you describe a scene with unflinching accuracy, your readers will feel it, the scene will become real to them, I tell my students. Now, I’m thinking that I might be wrong about that. There may be such a thing as too much realism.

Perhaps you have to be careful regarding details. Pick the things you expose with accurate description with caution. Too much perfect imagery about garbage is going to turn your readers off, which might be okay if the story is supposed to do that – like in a horror story, for instance. Ah, perhaps I’ve hit on the key. The details need to be appropriate in tone to the story you’re telling. Don’t linger on the gross bits in a story that’s meant to be a romantic, light-hearted romp.

The devil is in the details, indeed.

6 comments:

Muneraven said...

Methinks that there is no such thing as too much realism in a book that wishes to be KNOWN for its realism, like "Madame Bovary" or "McTeague." And post-modern stuff can get away with lots of even unpleasant, jarring detail because the reader isn't supposed to really get all immersed in the story. Meta, meta, meta, self-conscious reading, and all that.

But in any regular story-story, absolutely, too much accurate detail can be bad. A good example of this is in a sex scene. Actual real-life sex allows one to overlook the awkwardness and imperfect nature of the act itself because, well, sex rocks, lol. But in a book one really doesn't want all the awkward, realistic bits (unless the scene is being played for laughs).

I've complained before about SF/F books where Our Heroine is gravely wounded and yet goes on . . .and on. . .and on. But honestly I don't want to see every detail of her being repaired and her long recuperation, either. There has to be a middle ground.

I think you are right to tell newer writers to use realistic detail because that is something many of them don't do well. Perhaps later, when a writer automatically writes with detail, it is time to take a hard look at exactly which details ought to stay in the story.

Sean M. Murphy said...

Tate, I think you're right in you end realization, which you termed as being "appropriate in tone to the story you're telling", but I think also can be described as being aware of a potential reader (to hearken to Kelly's post a couple back, as well) and their reaction. Cigarette butts overflowed the scarred orange melamine bowl, heaps of ashes sifting over the bowl's toothy edge and falling onto the coffee-stained tabletop. That strikes me as noir in mood, but also as gross or uncomfortable. And if you are looking to publish a story, there is an absolute audience--at least your editor, and hopefully many people more than that. Not a specific audience, but a certain one. They are going to read details and have a visceral reaction, and that reaction is likely to be driven by their personal reaction--difficult to discern, of course, but perhaps measurable at least in part by the times in which they live. Twenty years ago, that ashtray was just gritty; now it's disgusting.:

Tone certainly plays into it, since there are certainly a variety of settings where that ashtray would be appropriate--1980's New Jersey suburbia, or anytime in a trailer park (through it wouldn't hurt to throw in a few old scratch tickets and a couple of empty bottles, maybe some overgrown roses outside the front door, etc.), or a moment of depression or sad realization from a struggling character.

But a story about Little Miss Energentic Sunshine Parade and the waffle-iron of doom doesn't mesh well with that sort of grit, those visible images of ash flakes stirred up into what little sunlight managed to get through the permanent haze of tar on the kitchen windows. So, yeah, I thnk some of it is tone of the piece, and some of it is the mood of a scene, which are related, though slightly different.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Not reading the same book you are, Tate, I can't say for sure, but I suspect that the jarring details also fail the economy test. Are they needed to tell the story, or is this extra bit of characterization tangential? I'm thinking that if this really told you something about the character, your reaction would pull you further into the book rather than out of it.

Muneraven, I'm so with you on the sex scenes. I tend to think the best ones are told almost entirely from within a character's head.

And Sean, just for the record, the trailer was the first house I lived in without an ashtray. I'd think the overflowing ashtray would be a much more telling detail in a big house with a manicured lawn. Just saying. ("Step right up, folks. Punch a button; get a spiel.")

Sean M. Murphy said...

Steph, you made me laugh. Perfect, since obviously I'm leaning a little too heavily on a trope. Should I also include extra long fingernails or a sideboard of emptied scotch glasses? Always depends on how you use it, of course.

Naomi said...

When I was writing Freedom's Apprentice, I had a scene where everyone at an inn, including the viewpoint character, comes down with food poisoning. I've had food poisoning (the minor kind, where you're just sick as a dog for a day) and I described it vividly, thinking, "you know, I don't think I've ever seen a food poisoning scene in a fantasy novel before, and yet, in a world with no refrigeration and a poor understanding of hygiene, people would get sick all the time!"

And, you know? There's a reason you don't see many food poisoning scenes in fantasy novels. Food poisoning sucks and lots of people will say, "wow, I'm feeling kind of sick remembering that last really bad stomach virus..." and put the book down. The food poisoning outbreak served the plot in some way, so I kept it, but I had the viewpoint character and her friend eat something else.

But then I used it in the third book in the trilogy, because there it served an important purpose to have the protagonist get violently ill. Although, I toned down some of the description, because while I would like the reader to remember how utterly miserable they were the last time they were throwing up, I don't want to actually get them to relive it.

The important lesson I learned somewhere in all this is that if you're going to vividly describe something as profoundly unpleasant as food poisoning, there had better be no other reasonable plot option to get you what you need.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Sean, I don't think the long fingernails are in keeping with the emphasis on appearances, unless you also mean them to be manicured. I'm thinking the ashtray belongs in the master bedroom and is the only ashtray in the house. Or maybe it goes deeper, into the bath off the master bedroom. Rather than a row of empty scotch glasses, you could just put the bottle in there, say, next to the plastic cup with the toothpaste remnants on it.

Or is that just getting too gothic?