Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Show, but How Much?

It’s an ongoing joke in my family that in the figurative paintings that Scott has done where he’s used me as his model, my face is always turned away from the viewer. At the point that it becomes a painting, it is no longer me or the model in the photograph; it becomes something new. People sometimes ask him why his figures are posed in that way. It’s really very simple. A painting that reveals a model’s face doesn’t have nearly the mystery and doesn’t leave nearly as much to the viewer’s imagination. Time and again I’ve been at art shows or read email queries about paintings Scott has done and a viewer has remarked that he has to have the painting because it is the essence of his wife or girlfriend. A figure posed with her face

turned away can be anyone.

The same holds true for Scott’s landscapes. He rarely titles them after the actual places he’s painted. Frequently, people are certain that these are places they know – they are someplace that’s familiar. Most of the time, people who are sure they know where the painting is are completely wrong, but he’s learned not to dissuade them from whatever they see. The painting is what the viewer thinks it is.

In fiction, we delight in reading about places we know, but I think we may be even more caught up in a story when the place is fictional, but very familiar.

One of the writers interviewed in the movie Stone Reader noted that reading is not a passive activity. A book needs a reader's imagination to really bring it to life.

I was thinking about a resistance on my part to write detailed descriptions of characters faces and physical characteristics – I like to focus on a few things that provide enough information to let the reader assume what he will. One or two pieces of information about place also suit me as a reader, but not description so specific that I can’t participate in building the story too. Tell me about a ceramic poodle and a petrified dish of ribbon candy in an old lady’s parlor and I can imagine the rest. Tell me about gangly teenage girl who constantly pushes her limp, shapeless hair behind her ears and I get the picture. Show me an old man leaning over his cane with milky blue eyes staring out from beneath caterpillar eyebrows and I’m with you.

Movie adaptations fall prey to viewer disappointment many times because the screenwriter and/or director stray too far from strong imagery we’ve been given by an author. I absolutely loved The Shipping News and the movie adaptation was quite good, but with one distracting flaw: Kevin Spacey was far too attractive. Annie Proulx’s Quoyle was clearly a pitifully unattractive man.

The study of fiction and the development of my own style over the last several months have given me a much greater sense of confidence about the type of fiction I’m striving to write and clear confirmation that there are many people who share my taste and many who do not.

How much description do you like to be given when you read a book? Would you prefer to read very detailed descriptions that provide very specific images of characters and place, or do you prefer to have most of it left to your imagination? What authors are you drawn to when it comes to their ability to “show” you their story?


kristen said...

Lisa, this post is further proof to me that you and I are very much in sync on all this stuff. I am often disappointed by too much descriptive text within a story. I don't need every last detail, I don't need to know every last tree or flower in the landscape. I'm interested in the characters--not what they look like--but why they do what they do, what motivates them, excites them, frightens them...

And I guess that's how I write. Whether I do it skillfully or not, remains to be seen.

The paintings, my friend, are wonderful, and yes, so much more intriguing because we don't see a face. So much talent in one house? Sigh.

The Writers' Group said...

That's you?! My favorites of Scott's work are these (yes, I've been to the website as should everyone). You are his muse. I think I could float the rest of my life knowing I was someone's muse; it's incredibily romantic.

As for details about setting, I like them. I want to know where I am what color the kitchen counter is, is the stove to my right or left, what do I see out the window. Characters are different. I want to know what they look like, their body language, all except the main character. I like leaving that to the imagination. No one agrees with me on this point, however.


Charles Gramlich said...

Beautiful art here. I see what you mean about the face being turned away leaving a mystery. For description in fiction it depends. For a contemporary thriller or mystery where the world is the one I know then I don't want a lot of description of places. I do like good description of action. For fantasy I tend to like a lot more description because I really want to envision the world and creatures the writer has created. I never need a lot of description of characters, though. I do like to have a few details, like hair and eye color and basic height.

Lisa said...

Kristen, We must be in sync, although I read the writers I admire most and admire what they do, but realize I may never be able to pull off what that do -- doesn't keep me from trying to learn though :)

Amy, No, these aren't all me. Some. Interesting that you note that no one agrees with you on your preference about character detail. I think I may tend to agree somewhat. I think I don't mind getting more detail on secondary characters or minor characters, but I tend to prefer that the main characters exist more in my imagination.

Charles, What you say about the type of story makes perfect sense and I was thinking that in fantasy it would be very necessary for the author to provide more detail because he's creating something that will not evoke the familiar for the reader. Perhaps the closer to home the fiction is the less is needed and the farther away it is, to include fantasy and probably historical fiction, the more necessary it is to provide more description.

Shauna Roberts said...

As a reader, I prefer less description of the characters rather than more, particularly for the main characters. Nothing turns me off a romance novel faster than a hero who is not my type in any way.

Also, descriptions of characters often seem to have value judgements attached. I cringe for all my overweight friends when large people are described negatively, and it annoys me when the description of the horribly ugly person sounds a lot like me.

On the other hand, I love description of clothes, food, jewelry, room decorations, scenery, etc. Much of what I read is science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction, and like Charles, I really want to see and hear and touch the alien world the writer has created.

In my writing, I tend to describe or not describe according to what I like to read.

Interesting topic you brought up. I know from my critique group's critiques that different people have very different tastes in how much description they want.

Patti said...

i want my readers ingaged in my story in any way possible, so i am of the school that supplies some general common physical details but with enough detail lacking so that the reader can fill in the rest with perhaps someone they know or see in their own imagination. i look to my dialoge and setting for the skin and bones of my chaacters.

Lisa said...

Shauna, I'm the same way with the male lead characters -- I don't like it when they're supposed to be appealing, but they're not my type either. I also agree with you about the value judgments. It turns me off if they are authorial -- but if they are negative judgments that the characters are making about themselves or each other, I'm ok with that. If a character doesn't like him/herself, I can deal with negative descriptions. If a character is negatively describing someone else, I'm ok with that if I'm not supposed to like the character assessing the judgment.

Patti, I think we're on the same page. A single article of clothing, piece of jewelry, small, but important detail -- can give me all the cues I need (or want) to fill in the details myself.

The Writers' Group said...

I love this post; it is always an interesting challenge, how much detail to provide, and how to communicate them. I remember some wise author (don't remember which!) saying one fun way to go about thinking about character was to write down how s/he is seen by others, and most specifically, what about that character is most annoying. Or to describe someone or think of someone, at the least, in terms of what they are not. By the way, I couldn't even go see Shipping News, knowing that Kevin Spacey played Quoyle. It would have made me crazy the whole time.


Leatherdykeuk said...

I like a brief sketch of a decription and happily fill in the details myself.

Scott's paintings are simply breathtaking.

Lisa said...

Hannah, I like that advice -- something annoying/humanizing or otherwise not banal is always what gets my attention. On The Shipping News -- I wonder how Annie Proulx felt about Kevin Spacey as Quoyle? He's one of my favorite actors, but, I think a Philip Seymour Hoffman would have been a better choice.

Rachel, I'll pass on the compliment to Scott. Yep, we're on the same page with the level of detail I think.

Larramie said...

From my first visit to Eudaemonia, Scott's art captured me and I toured his website to find beauty in hidden faces. He gave the beholder free rein on their imagination and, to me, that's a double gift of art.

Having said that, the same applies to writing. I don't want or need to read the obvious physical details which, in fact, can easily interrupt the story. OTOH, reading the details of a character's feelings/thoughts create magic.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf