Thursday, May 28, 2009

Paint Me a Picture

Recently I was reading a mystery where the heroine rented a "big ass pimp-mobile." There was no other description of the car whatsoever. I put the book down to ask my husband and kids just what those words meant to them. No one agreed on the make, model or color of the car, let alone the year. (My husband seemed to think some car he owned as a teenager was the only one ever made to fit this description. The only thing the kids agreed on is that they strongly disagreed with that.) According to them, the car was violently pink, glossy black, or even (unlikely as it seems to me) purple. I never picked the book up again as it bothered me that I could not see this car in my head. My kids tell me that is because the book wasn't aimed at my age-bracket. I'm thinking that's most likely true but still not an excuse.
This is a problem I have with description lately. People think that some popular term means the same thing to everyone and that will fill in for description. Sometimes it does--but I think it's mainly limited to "Beam me up, Scotty." And even then, I know a few Trekkies who think this is a sign of a kindred spirit --instead of a comment that they are living in whole 'nother world than the rest of us.
We all want to skip writing the parts that readers skip reading (with apologies to Elmore Leonard for mangling his quote) but you can't take shortcuts to writing good, taut, description. The picture in the reader's head won't ever be exactly the one in the author's head--no matter how you try. How many times have you seen a book made into a movie and been upset by the choice of actress for the lead? But think of the Harry Potter books and the way some readers (many adults) return over and over again just to visit that world. The description was a big and necessary part of the series.
It doesn't take much to take a reader out of our books. This whole, beautiful, chaotic, world is in competition with what we have to say. That's why we have to make our fictional world as real as we can. And have a little fun describing those pimp mobiles.


Christine Duncan is the author of the Kaye Berreano mystery series.

8 comments:

Earl Staggs said...

I agree with you on description, Christine, and try to keep to a bare minimum out of fear of planting the wrong image in the mind of a reader. I have the same fear of regional sayings and terminology for the same reason. What's commonly said in Texas, for instance, may be foreign in Vermont.

Dana Fredsti said...

I think in this case the author must have thought each reader would have their own intepretation of what a 'big ass pimp mobile' looked like, but even a make, model and color would have helped. I automatically pictured the Duke's car in Escape from New York, mind you! It's the chandeliers on either side of the hood that make it. :-)

Dana Fredsti said...

I think in this case the author must have thought each reader would have their own intepretation of what a 'big ass pimp mobile' looked like, but even a make, model and color would have helped. I automatically pictured the Duke's car in Escape from New York, mind you! It's the chandeliers on either side of the hood that make it. :-)

Marvin D. Wilson said...

Agreed. It's easy to think (erroneously) your slang is cute and appropriate and that everyone will know what you mean by it. But using it can severely limit your readership to a particular demographic.

The Old Silly from Free Spirit Blog

Chris V. said...

Interesting take though I guess I'm a reader (and maybe a writer too) that doesn't mind such a description as it can depend on what you see by where you live. In the Chicago area, it's what else but a big caddy! I'd think that most readers would have seen some movie or read/seen something elsewhere depicting such a car and would have no problem coming up with theirown mental image? Even if the image differs with each person I'd think that really would'nt matter to the story itself?

Cat Connor said...

I agree with Chris V. on this. I don't mind that kind of description at all. I know in my self what I think it means, and can easily conjure the image.

(admittedly I do use makes and models in my stories tho! or at least a color!)

Mark Troy said...

"Big ass pimp mobile" tells me more about the car than any make/model, color, etc. could convey. You can fill a page with all kinds of descriptive detail about something and the reader still won't see it, but throw in some emotion and I've got it. This tells me how the narrator reacts to it and how I should react to it.

Ben Small said...

If it's important to the story, it should be described so the reader can imagine it. In this case, since the author has used such a descriptive term, conjuring up notions of glitter and diamond pattern carpet-covered windows, I would think color and size and maybe a few other attributes would be helpful. If the point of the author was to make this vehicle outrageous, a bit more description would have been helpful.