22 April, 2006

Effective use of detail in world-building

Gill Polack has an interesting post today about the use of specific details to build effective worlds and cultures in fiction. I couldn't figure out how to link to the specific post (anyone know how you do this with a LiveJournal site?) so scroll down to the post "Even in a little thing" dated 22 April. It refers primarily to fantasy and science fiction, but it seems to me that it applies equally well to historical fiction. Good historical fiction also has to build a world that is different from the world we all inhabit day-to-day, and make it recognisable enough for a modern reader to follow a story set there.

Discussing a writer called Glenda Larke (who sounds like someone whose novels I should try - anyone read them?), Gill Polack says:

"Her worlds work because she mimics the sense we sometimes get in our own lives: that things are interlinked and complex. She streamlines her narrative by making use of different aspects of society and making sure we see those aspects from several points of view (never just 'sheep' - sheep in fields, cloth in market, wool on someone's back)and so she indicates to us that these societies are complex and functional. The detail is *so* telling, that we can infer much more from her hints than is said on the page."

This chimes in with the discussions we had here earlier about how much detail is too much, and with the recent discussion about sensory description (also discussed by Bernita). It also ties in with a conversation I had with Rick on Gabriele's blog on the possibility of inferring considerable information about a fictional world from the existence of a single item (in that particular case, a book).

Detail and description for its own sake has a tendency to drag, whereas detail and description that has the double function of saying something significant about the world, advancing the plot or developing a character can be hugely effective. As ever, one should bear in mind the caveat that it depends on the personal taste of the reader. Perhaps even more than usual in this case, because the telling detail may only be telling to a reader who is sufficiently engaged with the story to be using their imagination to make the inferences. Someone who is skating along on the top of the plot may never notice at all.

Have you any favourite examples of a telling detail that makes a world real?


Susan Higginbotham said...

I've been racking my brains to answer this question intelligently. As a reader, I tend to skim over heavily detailed descriptions of things, such as details of what someone's wearing or what the weather's like. I prefer the small details, of the sort you mention in your post, that light up a scene for me or reveal an aspect of character.

The example that comes to my mind doesn't make a world real to me, but an individual scene. I don't have the book to quote from, but in Sandra Gulland's Josephine Bonparte trilogy, Josephine is close to embarking on an adulterous affair with a Captain Charles (if I recall the name correctly). As he is undressing, something happens to startle the couple, and Captain Charles is left stumbling around in a ridiculous state of half-dress. This reduces both Josephine and Charles to laughing helplessly, and they part without having consummated their relationship. In her diary, Josephine comments on Charles's "bouncing and rather large member," or something like that. It's a little phrase that lit up the scene for me and revealed Josephine's healthy sense of the absurd, making her a most likable character.

Bernita said...

I too have been wracking my brains - without much success.
Here's an example I like for its historical echoes.Something that delights me in future fiction.
It's from The Ecolitan Operation by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
"He entered the series of codes and instructions he was not supposed to know, the ones left over from the Directorate, the ones used to ensure that no one captured an Imperial Base - and survived.
"Masada one, on line," scripted the console.
"Romans at the walls," he tapped in return.
"Time until sunrise?" inquired the ancient safeguard.
"Thirty-five standard minutes." Jimjoy hoped the time was sufficient, but if they didn't make it within the time limit, they wouldn't make it at all. Not after his trail of carnage.
"After sunrise?" the console asked in the uncharacteristic antique script.
"Neither legions nor the chosen people."

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I was about to start re-reading Cecelia Holland's Until The Sun Falls and then Catherine Jink's Pagan's Crusade arrived (thanks Ali!) and I've had my nose in it every since - fantastic book and full of the kind of cultural details you mention Carla. However, it's the Holland I've got beside me now and she is wonderful at world building using detail. For e.g. on page 1 of Until The Sun Falls (set in the Mongol Empire just after the death of Temujin.

'Would the Khan prefer Rice Wine or kumiss?'
'Kumiss.' Rice wine was a drink for effeminate Chinese. Psin glared at Ye Lui for suggesting it.

Or a couple of pages later, same character who has rejected the rice wine. He's going to see someone on the campaign field.
'The yurt was of honest felt, at least; some of the others were silk.'

The reader is being given insights into the character of the protagonist, Psin, a no nonsense tough-talking, hard-drinking Mongol general. From the comments made the reader knows that he considers Chinese refinement soft and prefers Mongol traditions. You also suspect, re the tent comment, that he's going to have something in common with its occupant, even while he thinks he's superior. And all done in a few words. Until The Sun Falls is one of my top 20 historical novels. As far as Holland goes, it vies in my affections with Hammer For Princes and Great Maria. I am reminded of the latter by Susan H's comment re Sandra Gulland's scene. In Great Maria there's a line in a love scene in a (collapsing) stable that goes something like 'I know there's a hole in there somewhere.' !!

Susan Higginbotham said...

Great Maria sounds fun. I'll have to look for it.

Carla said...

Those are exactly the sort of details I was thinking of! Sorry about the brain (w)racking, everyone, especially on a sunny Saturday.

Bernita, the Masada reference seems like a little historical 'code' for the clued-up reader to recognise.

Elizabeth - those examples show two contrasting cultures, as well as the character of the protagonists. I love books that do that. (The comment about the stable scene reminds me of the joke about the American businessman in Japan.....)

Susan - your example reminds me irresistibly of a scene from The First Man In Rome. Sulla is at a risque fancy-dress party, dressed as Medusa in a costume featuring a lot of snakes and leaving very little to the imagination, is caught by his mistress in flagrante delicto with a boy actor, and in the ensuing chaos there's a reference to his "bouncing biggest snake" (!). Which few words fixed the scene indelibly in my mind for ever :-)

Incidentally, I have a suspicion that 'bouncing' is a verb only a woman writer would use in that particular context. What do you think?

Rick said...

I can't immediately think of "telling details" in books I've actually read, but the odor of sanctity from a thread or two back certainly fits.

And I think you're right - it would never occur to me to use "bouncing" in that particular context. For that matter, in any such a scene my focus would likely be on the female form divine.

Bernita said...

Don't know about "code" - saw it simply an example of history survival.
To me any Sci-fi writer who produces a future based on an earth past should have bits and pieces of earth history, suitably mangled by time but recognizable,appear for veracity in their world building.
Remember one where a certain form of expression was called "a Kipling."

Martyn said...

I can't think of anything off hand, I've a feeling there's a really good example of well marshalled description in Wuthering Heights, but it completely escapes me at present.

Carla said...

Bernita - 'code' probably wasn't the right word. I was thinking that not everybody would necessarily get the reference to Masada (unless the history of the siege is part of the story?), but that history buffs who did would likely be pleased to have recognised it.

Hello Martyn and thanks for dropping by. 'Wuthering' in the title might be a good example - it conveys the Yorkshire dialect and a sense of the wind around solid stone houses in a bleak, beautiful landscape. Or it does to me, anyway, but that may be because I have roots in that part of the world myself :-) Your photos of Chafer Woods on your blog are lovely. Is that the Thornton Dale near Pickering? The bits of the Park I know best are the Whitby coast and the high moors around Goathland. By the way, as you're in York, do you know about York Writers' Group? Alex has a link to them on her blog if you're interested.