Now and then another writers comes to me with advice on writing. Below is a letter I wrote to one author in response to a plethora of questions she had on how a writer builds story.
Your question was:
Oh! Also. I was wondering how much it really bugged you not knowing much about the culture in this prologue. I go pretty deep into it in later chapters, and I was aiming to simply tantalize my reader with small tidbits (such as their clothing) here. But if that wasn’t enjoyable to you as a reader, obviously I can change it up.
Culture says everything about a person. My passion spans Late antiquity, the rise, decline, and evolution of the Roman Empire into what would become the Holy Roman Empire: Medieval European history, theology, historical linguistics, the history of metallurgy and smithing, and more than 3,000 years of the development of the European mind and man. The result? I’m hypersensitive to culture and can pull apart a lot from small details. I am an exception. So when I say it bugged me a lot, you must bear in mind that I am weird this way and my opinion may not be the one you are looking for.
And this actually ties in to “Light in Story” that you had asked about earlier, so I’ll start there.
When you begin a story… any story, we see black. When you begin a novel, a writer must literally “turn the lights on”. I won’t go into the affect it has on our psychology, but I will give you the list. Here are the first things we notice in this order.
- Light – time of day, moonlight, sunlight, clouds, firelight, indoor, outdoors
- Sight – indoors, outdoors, weather
- Touch – weather, temperature
- Sound, Smell, Taste – Only in relation to the degree of their offense
If it is dark, we noticed its dark before anything else. If it is light, we noticed what kind of light and take note of our surroundings. We must know what light is their first. For every chapter and scene change, the writer has to redefine light.
If the MC is sleeping, blindfolded, blind, or in a dark area, the character will then default to temperature, sound (if there is anything) and smell, if there is something coherently pungent.
All other senses are secondary and are only in order of their offense. If something is too loud, is something stinks or smells suddenly pleasant, if something is shoved into your mouth like thick, sticky orc-ale. If you are in pain, all these will be noticed second, unless they are so extraordinary that they override the primary light and location. If there is nothing out of the ordinary, then the reader assumes and starts filling in the blanks where you didn’t elaborate.
Knowing what the reader will assume, helps you to determine how to and what you want to say.
You said “high summer sun”. You told me Sterling was hot in his layers. I assumed it was a warm, green day, with no wind, no strange sounds. I assumed the smell was that of a forest.
The two sentences should be setting this description. Here’s where the art of writing comes into the picture. You want to insert these details around an MC and you want to do so subtly without the reader realize you’ve done them.
By the end of the first descriptive paragraph, the reader should know where the MC is, what kind of lighting is available, the age, gender, name of the MC and a brief description. I read somewhere that you want to give no more than three characteristics total.
Bergen is tall (6’2’’), has long, black hair and deep black eyes. Later, you learn he has a scar over his right brow. One hundred pages later…after years pass…the reader learns that he is now elite swordsman (you should be able to guess at his physique) and he is “The Dark One” (a name you learn through Kallan’s reaction, that she fears him). But when you first meet Bergen, all you see is his hair, his eyes, and his height.
Actions can be used to show a reader a character’s possessions without you telling them “by the way, he has a sword.” Instead, show Sterling drawing the sword from his hip. You actually did this, which was nice, but it needs to be seen soon that he has a sword. Unless you show the reader, the reader will assume the character is unarmed and holding nothing.
Now, the swords… I studied the history of swords because I needed to know what weapons my characters used. I gave Bergen a claymore-like weapon 200 years before its time. When you say “Spathia” I say “Rome”. When you say “Claymore” I saw “Scotland” and if you say “katana” I answer Japan.
If you want your readers to think “Rome” then you’re fine to say Spathia like you did. Leave it, but if you’re going for epic fantasy, you may have an issue with your audience as readers of Epic Fantasy usually default to Norse cultures. Is this mandatory. No. My story is written with the Norse cultures in mind, but I don’t want my readers to immediately say “Norway”. I want them to think Norse-like. So I never say “Bastard sword”. Yes it’s a Bastard sword and the sword is 33” long. But, I don’t tell them that. I do say seax (which is a Nordic dagger used by the Saxons). I’m fine with that.
You asked if you can put off their culture? If you do, readers will default to whatever culture they are in. you are writing for the American audience, I presume, so they will more than likely plug in a generic European military fort. Now, if you want something more exotic like Japanese, Australian, African, or Roman, you’re going to have to set their mindset straight right off before the reader has a chance to set up their own world and fill in the blanks. Otherwise, the reader will have to go back and re-read and make the corrections. This pisses them off . You do NOT want to do that. An irate reader stops reading.
So if it is Roman, yes, say so right off. First three sentences the hint must be established that we are looking at the Colosseum.
This is the first chapter I wrote in Book 3, that takes the reader out of my Nordic forests. See what I start with.
“Across the forest and rivers that riddled the lands below the mountains of Midgard and beyond the White Sea, Ra-Kedet glistened like a golden scroll splayed upon the sands. No snows fells here where the sun blazed down on the city’s ports. As usual, the streets buzzed in between the little awnings and shops. Barters haggled while nearby beggars reached out their hands for alms. A thief pocketed an artifact while he shook the hand of its keeper.
The high winter sun was relentless. Camels groaned as owners brushed aside the desert spiders out from underneath their legs. Bergen walked past, paying no mind as the large sand colored insects dropped to the ground and attempted to scurry away before a boot smashed them into the ground.”
The reader will have already seen Bergen and will know what he looks like here. But you have lighting, atmosphere, culture, and temperature all in two paragraphs. And Ra-Kedet is too exotic for me to let the reader fill in the blank (Its why I chose this as an example).
The Writer’s Presence:
The writer’s goal is always to communicate a single thought with such clarity that the reader isn’t even aware of the writer’s presence. I will repeat “unaware of the writer’s presence”.
Things that make the reader aware of the writer’s presence is…
- Bad grammar
- Inconsistency in characterization
- Frequent, crass, or out-of-character swearing
- Poorly written dialects
- Foreign languages and characters (letters and symbols)
- Difficult to pronounce names or places (epic fans thrive on this one)
- Opinions not reflected by a character that encompass the character
- Poorly written descriptions for the sake of shock factor
- Crudeness depending on genre
- Derogatory writing when not in character
- Slow pacing
- And Brand names
I was reading a story here on Scribophile the other day and read “Bill and Ted.” I stopped reading to say “Bodacious!” …every time (Yep! I’m an ’80’s child!).
20 years ago my teacher was reading aloud about a waterfall and the author wrote, “with a snap crackle and pop…” The whole class broke out in laughter and I can’t tell you anything else about the story because all I remember is “snap, crackle, pop…Rice Krispies”
To use a brand name is to evoke a thought. If you want to use a brand name, you are up against a huge challenge. You will have to literally burn out the image the brand evokes. But a brand is an image meant only to provoke a single thought. And you are trying to override it.
One of my favorite Brand icons is the 1950’s Coca-Cola Santa Clause. It was meant to be an ad to match the Coke bottle. The result? Coca-Cola changed how Western Culture views the Old Norse Father Christmas all with that ad and most of us today don’t associate the Coca-Cola Santa to Coke. *laughing* Brands are powerful! Don’t underestimate their strength.
Can you undo “snap, crackle, pop” in one story so that by chapter 10, you can say “snap, crackle, pop” and not evoke a certain thought? Unlikely. The brand is embedded into our brains. So when I read, “Sterling” I thought, “Silver” every time.
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