Monday, April 8, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Clarity and "Literary" Writing

There are, of course, several schools of thought on what makes "good" writing.  And, frankly, half the time I'm at something of a loss.  By which I mean, many times I will read something that's been identified as "great writing" and think it's a muddled mess.  And many times I'll read things that are scathingly referred to as "puerile" or "simplistic" and think it's fun and entertaining.

When it comes to "great writing"-- in other words, writing that aspires to be literature-- some writers come away with an idea that they need to be obscure.  That just coming out and saying what happened is too base or something.  That to be great, you have to make your readers work for it.

I don't get that.

More to the point, this idea creates the impression among learning writers that they need to avoid clarity in favor of obfuscating the action.  Especially on the academic level, this sort of idea is drilled into heads to the point where it's very hard to knock those bad habits out.

I read one sample chapter for workshopping in which the actual action in the chapter involved the main character visiting the grave of her friend.  I had to re-read the chapter four times before I figured that out.  Words like "grave" or "cemetery" or "headstone" did not appear.  Why?  I can only presume the author had gotten the idea that they needed to avoid direct telling of events in favor of sensory details.

This may not be a popular opinion among writers, but "sensory details" can be the death of clear writing.

Not that sensory details are bad, but many times it's done in a way to be obscure.  Instead of telling the reader that the character sees an elephant, the writer tells us about the sight of large leathery ears, the earthy scent of dung, trumpeting calls and the ground shaking from a thunderous walk, and they hope that we put those pieces together and come up with "elephant".  That type of thing can be fun, in a puzzle-box sort of way, but it isn't necessarily good writing. 

Also, too often I see sensory details are thrown out the for the sake of putting sensory details. I remember one piece of writing advice that said something along the lines of, "If you go a page without each sense being represented, you're doing something wrong".  This is terrible advice.  A sensory detail should be used if it's relevant to the action.

Take smell, for example.  Are you smelling something right now?  Is the fact that you're smelling it strongly on your mind?  To put that to writing, in the scene itself, is the fact that a smell is being noticed key to the scene?  Or is it a detail you're adding because you feel you're supposed to add sensory details?

Of course, sometimes confusing the readers is the point.  And that can be fun, but if you're going to do that, do it well.  For every Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, there are dozens of books that are just unclear.

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