Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What authors struggle to translate into words

This can include paintings, photos, sculptures, carvings, etches, architecture, embroidery, knitting, firework displays and mosaics. There are plenty more forms of art but I don't want to create a list of art.

Art can be described by breaking it down into its aspects and by describing some of the impact it has on the character but the true value of art is, more often than not, lost in translation. Art is highly visual and textural while words break such aspects of life down so as to transfer ideas. Art is an idea made whole and complete.

(To say writing is an art is to say there is often creativity involved and a skill in weaving words is required but writing is quite different to most other art forms, both in process and in product. I'd argue that it is distinct enough to be set on its own.)

It is also not often worth the writer's time to describe art in full as the amount of description would impede the flow of action within the book. Only if the art is vital to the plot would it be described in great detail.

So what an author can do is ensure that the words used are beautiful, shocking or ugly as needed. This way the language used can to some extent reflect to art, leaving the impression with the reader that the artwork is either beautiful, shocking or ugly.

Music is the art for the ears but it is felt in the chest, heart and mind in various different ways. To translate music into writing is to remove the immediate impact, to rely on a reader's knowledge and memory of a song and to break down into parts what is meant to be experienced in full.

Again, an author is reduced to describing reactions, volumes, lyrics and energies but the music is not there in the writing, it is in the reader's memory and strong connection to the character. Without either, what is written is of no real importance to the reader and a description is wasted. Describing music for music's sake is often a wasted effort and can stall the story being told.

So music can be used in other ways. It can be used as a dash of interest much as writers refer to or quote a poet's words, to make a point inherent in the lyrics or to highlight a situation and the character's reaction to it. Detailed descriptions of sound can be used to highlight the physical, of lyrics to highlight the mental or emotional and the general mood of the music to set a mood within the story's action. Music can be used as a tool but is hard to translate for its own sake.

Describing food is to appeal to the senses of taste, smell and touch as well as sight. Sometimes even hearing if it boils, clinks, crackles and crunches etc. Just look at the picture below. The only sense appealed to is sight and I bet you know think having some pizza for dinner isn't a bad idea and all you have to do is either put the defrosted meat back in the fridge, convince the wife and call or just pick up a phone when you get home.

Why it is often the case that food isn't translated well is because:

  • Not enough senses are appealed to now that sight is to be broken down into words. The sight of a dish is much like a photo of a dish and requires the detailing of aspects rather than the taking in of a whole image at once.
  • All the senses are broken down into aspects and plain language is used.
  • The character's reactions are left out.
  • The author just lists the ingredients or the food type.
How to write food into a book is to use beautiful or disgusting language, describe the impact of the food upon the character and embellish upon the food's appeal as many senses as possible. Even after all this work you will need to appeal to the known so that the reader can search through their culinary memory and identify exactly what the food your writing about looks, tastes, feels and smells like.

Fantastic Technology
The art (skill) of writing science fiction, and sometimes fantasy, is the art of inventing new technologies. To do so means either creating new worlds, laws of physics or even universes so that the technologies do not push the suspension of disbelief beyond its limits. Without doing so you will end up with readers doing something like this:

To deconstruct and then reconstruct a person in teleportation is just copying the person like a photocopier.
You're killing/destroying the original when you transport using this method.
What happens when there aren't any carbon atoms where the new copy is being constructed?
Won't the copies become blurred or faulty like reprints from a photocopier or our DNA as it replicates?

So on and so forth.

People like to be entertained but they also love to pick apart ideas to point out faults. We are a species that loves to question and the reason why is because without this ability we'd likely have died off a long time ago. Don't worry though, we yet might for not questioning ourselves enough, instead expending our energy on the likes of all this.

Back to the point. To describe new technologies is to construct whole systems and then describe the technology and then its uses and impacts, breaking it down piece by piece.  For those writing fantasy it is easier as it is possible to skip over many of the details involved in each stage. When readers approach fantasy they expect the unearthly and unexpected. When readers approach science-fiction they expect fiction to be presented factually, with the inclusion of logic and reason.

The description of fantastic technologies demands either skills in or a deep understanding of logic, reason, design, science, technology, research, practical application and human perception. It also demands the writer write the fantastical in statements of fact.

Why authors often struggle with this is because not all authors have these skills, not all authors know how far that suspension can be stretched and not all authors are capable of seeing and justifying that many changes to reality. To master science fiction is to understand reality enough to master a fictional universe down to the minutest details.

Complete scenery
Writing scenery is to break apart a picture that involves all the senses into something that involves only sight, touch and to some extent smell (of a single scent at that). To write a complete scene is to describe in great detail every aspect of it, each aspects relation to the other and the impact upon the characters viewing or experiencing it. This becomes length and tiring to the reader and again stalls the story for a single scene. Unless the story revolves around or is encompassed by this single scene then there is no point in describing everything in detail.

So how writers convey complete scenes is by picking out the main aspects, waxing poetic over them and appealing to the reader's imagination by adding details that appeal to multiple senses.

Complex and lengthy action scenes
Try describing this accurately:

See what I mean?
To write long action scenes is quite difficult because of the excessive amount of important cause and effects involved. You'd have to track and describe each little bit in order to accurately portray this single scene of a movie and it would likely take a chapter or more to complete. In the end it would take far longer to read than to view or act out in a single cut.

So for novels fight scenes are often quick and violent and involve few combatants. Causes and effects are limited, weaponry recognisable as it has either already been described (if new technology) or it is recognisable to the reader.

The art of writing a fight scene is to limit its scope and to keep the action fast by keeping the sentences or phrases short and sharp. Limiting the character's perception of reality is also important as this is exactly how we respond to danger. We automatically mentally remove all possible distractions so that our focus is where it needs to be if we're to survive: the point of the knife, the eyes of the attacker, the rush of air as a sword cuts past, the click of a gun's trigger, the sound of a reload, possible items that could be used as weaponry, the room's construction, hiding places etc. Whether there is a cat on the railing, a bird flying overhead, fireworks booming or a marching band is passing by is of no importance unless it can be used to distract or foil the enemy.

New inventions and discoveries
Everyone can relate to this when they consider the introduction of the Internet and the huge flood of words that were created to describe how to build websites, navigate the Internet and sell it or products online.

But new words need to be invented all the time to describe and name

So how does an author use words mostly unknown or unfamiliar to the reader? By dropping them into normal text bit by bit, offering meanings and acting as interpreter for the reader. Fictional works that have too many new words and concepts within them, that are too technical in nature, can make the reader blow a fuse just trying to understand what has been written.

The introduction of new words must come along with definitions. But this can only happen when the word is already available. What happens when you need to describe a process or a new discovery, identify what's never been identified before, and there aren't any words for what you want to describe? A new word isn't always created or accepted so writers (often scientists or engineers) are left using known words in new ways, trusting the reader can interpret correctly what is meant if a detailed enough description is provided.

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