"And the light grew steadily stronger, but no birds sang as they were wont to do at the approach of the dawn; and but for the heavenly music all was marvelously still.
On either side of them, as they glided onwards, the rich meadow-grass seemed that morning of a freshness and greenness unsurpassable. Never had they noticed the roses so vivid, the willow-herb so riotous, the meadow-sweet so odorous and pervading."
-The Wind in the Willows
"A hundred yards away, at the bottom of the slope, ran the brook, no more than three feet wide, half choked with kingcups, watercress, and blue brooklime. The cart track crossed by a brick culvert and climbed the opposite slope to a five-barred gate in the thorn hedge. The gate led into the lane."
- Watership Down
At first glance, there doesn't seem to be much difference in these two descriptions. But one really appeals to me, and the other really doesn't. I wondered why, and when I realized the answer, I suddenly felt the need to blog about it, despite the fact that it is currently 2:32 am.
What makes these two passages, which are both so detailed, so different from each other?
The first gives the impression of the scene. The second is strictly the lay of the land.
Neither of these methods are wrong, mind you. It really comes down to the way your brain works when you read.
I really liked this little segment from The Wind in the Willows. I think this is mostly because it gives a feeling for what the scene is like, and I can fill in the details on my own. I know the feeling is a surreal sereneness that only a sunrise can give, so I know exactly what colors and movements to give everything in order to make the picture that way. I can put the shade of the grass to the color that I like it best. I can decide exactly what fresh meadow scent would please me the most.
It doesn't bother telling me things like "Thick clumps of roses lined the southern bank." It does tell me that the roses are more exquisite than normal. Then I can put them wherever I want them to be, and make them whatever color I choose, making them exquisite specifically for me.
Impressions and feelings can bring to mind very vivid images and memories. You know exactly what the scene should feel like, and your mind creates it accordingly, detailing it to your personal specifications. After all, what might please one person might be exceedingly dull to another.
Lay of the Land:
It is important to know certain things. If one city is about to declare war on another city, it might be helpful to know that they share a border over which they've been quarreling for decades. Thus the war makes much more sense.
Or if a person is left handed, and the attacker is coming from the right, this is important information because it partially determines the outcome of the fight.
But I find, personally at least, that lay of the land descriptions severely limit the imagination, and therefore limit the imagery itself. Thus making me much less interested in the story.
Take, for example, the section from Watership Down. The details are so specific in nature that two things happen.
One, I get bogged down. I am trying to paint the author's picture in my head at the same pace that I'm reading, and I can't keep up. It's a bit frustrating. When I paint my own picture, it all sort of comes automatically.
And then, when I do finally get the author's details, I end up with a bit of a coloring book look: Where the insides are brightly colored, but the background is still the same off-white. If you're going to control exactly where everything is in my picture, you'd better give me enough to cover the entire canvas. And that, sadly, is very hard to do without becoming exceedingly dull. Case in point, Victor Hugo.
Also, even though the paint was spread, there was still no life in it. Just a still frame waiting for something to happen. Was the brook happy and bubbly, or slow from those choking plants thus giving it a depressing air? I want to know, because right at this moment it's not moving at all.
Two, I get bored. Why should I care whether the gate was five-barred or not? Is that going to be important later? I don't like being told exactly how many yards away my creek should be, or how wide it is. Oh, and obviously the gate leads into the lane. I'd rather gathered that for myself, thanks.
As of this point, you're likely thinking that I'm being rather harsh on that poor little paragraph. Yes, perhaps a bit. But it came from a much longer selection which left me, as I mentioned, frustrated at putting it all in the right place, and dissatisfied with the result when it was together.
I suppose the best way to describe these differences is with a horror movie analogy. When I watch a scary movie, I'm almost never scared. No matter how good the effects are, or how well written the script is, the most a movie has ever done for me is intense suspense. I don't get actually frightened. Until later.
The scariest part about watching a horror movie is walking through the nearly empty, completely dark parking lot, because the only open space when you got there was around the back in that section that most people forget is there.
Or going to bed at night when you realize that your roommate is still out of town and your front door has been unlocked for several hours.
Or when your bedroom door mysteriously opens about four more inches for absolutely no reason at all.
Which seriously just happened, and it kind of freaked me out. Especially because it's now after 3 am. If I'm missing tomorrow, you'll have a clue, at least.
Anyway, the point of that is that people can put scary images on a screen, and sure they might be pretty good, and pretty freaky. But everyone is different, and no one knows exactly what would be the perfect scare set up for you but you. So when you get in the dark later, your brain comes up with the optimum scenario for freaking you out. It remembers the things in an exaggerated way.
Same with the literature imagery. For me, the second selection was like watching the tv. A couple scary images, a few plot twists, and some creepy music. Pretty alright, but I'm not clutching the arm of the person next to me in fright.
The first selection is what happens later when I'm walking home in the dark. My brain remembers the idea of scary things. Which leads to remembering exactly what scary things would actually frighten me. Which leads to me actually imagining said scary things, and having to put on my ipod and plug in my christmas lights. The scariness was very specifically tailored for me.
When I can construct my own pictures from the impressions and clues in the text, the resulting images are specifically tailored for me, and therefore much more satisfying, and significantly easier to produce.