I read a lot – my husband will attest to that – and just lately it has dawned on me what is lacking in many contemporary novels. Imagery!! Sights, sounds and smells, the intricate details which set time and place.
I am not sure why this is so, but yesterday, while reading a novel, I couldn’t get a sense of where the characters were or even that there was a change of speakers! I knew they were in a house, but what sort of house? Were there pictures on the walls? Was it old fashioned or modern?
Unfortunately, this is all too common in the latest paperback or e-books, as is jumping from scene to scene with nothing to indicate why or where. Many writers seem content to let their characters talk, go shopping, have sex and occasionally go to work. Fine, you say?
Certainly, but where is the detail I would expect to find in a well-written story? What are they seeing, hearing and smelling? Is the scent of flowers drifting in from the garden? Is there anything cooking on the stove? Is there cat hair on the cushions? Where is the attention to detail which makes a mundane novel into a great one?
A novel I read recently detailed a list of what the heroine bought and lots of sex, but this was a murder mystery as well! The shopping and sex took up three quarters of the plot leaving the murder to be crammed into the last quarter. The build up lacked tension, and the minutiae of the killer’s motive was so mysterious as to be non-existent! All the reader got were his thoughts: “She is mine, mine, mine!” As far as I was concerned, he could have her, because I didn’t care enough to worry about her.
Let us take a look at a couple of examples:
“Let’s go and have some dinner,'” she said. They walked into the restaurant and ordered fish to go. Back at the house they ate and washed up and went to the bedroom. “
Then followed some very detailed sex. How riveting is that?
Okay, how about:
“Let’s go out to dinner,” she said, smiling.
He turned away from the city lights shining through the huge lounge room window. “Where do you want to go?”
“There’s a new fish cafe just down the street with low lighting and soft jazz.” Her hand poised over the stereo, mouth watering as the thought of hot, crispy chips and grilled trout with lime filtered through her mind. Her stomach growled and she hoped he hadn’t heard.
“We’ll get something in.” He moved quickly across the room and took her in his arms, “I don’t want to share you, even with the waiter in a restaurant.”
Suddenly, all thought of dinner was forgotten...
Not sure why he was gazing at the city lights instead of attending to her, but for the purposes of example – we know that she is hungry, wants to go out and eat but he has one thing on his mind (so what’s new?) and is quite happy to let her starve for the moment. She shouldn’t get too involved with him! This is a spur of the moment, made up scenario and a bit rough, but you get the picture?
The first example, exactly from the book - I don’t want to identify it- gives the reader nothing in ambience, but when you get to the sex there is far too much information, trust me!
Another scene with a couple walking, taken from The Naked Room:
‘The leaves on the trees beside the drive rustled in a gentle night breeze. Stars blazed in the Milky Way giving dim natural light, augmented by the torch. An owl hooted nearby. By mutual consent, we didn’t speak. The only sound was our footsteps and Benji’s nails clicking on the tarmac as he panted along in front. My back cringed as though in the sights of a sniper’s rifle. Somewhere, someone was watching us, probably through night glasses.’
And from another piece in the first example, also with a couple walking:
‘They walked down the road to the river and along the path. Why didn’t he talk, she wondered, but didn’t want to upset him. When they got to the end of the path they turned back, got in the car and drove back to the house.’
Uh? What house, where was the river? Were there ducks on the river, people rowing, fishing, what sort of day was it? Were there barbeques in a park nearby, sending the enticing aroma of sausages or steak through the air? Were there children screaming and chasing each other through the grass? Did they pass anyone on the way there or back? Why didn’t she want to upset him? Sadly, the paragraphs before and after only indicate that he is angry about something, she doesn’t know what and is afraid to ask. Some relationship!
So much more could have been added with a few lines of imagery to set the scene and make the reader care about the couple. Later in the plot, we find out that his father has died and she thinks, in time honoured fashion, that he is angry with her, but he won’t tell her what is wrong so and she won’t ask...blah blah... but by this time, I didn’t give a darn what they did. Is this minimalist style of writing the latest fashion? Is life moving so fast now that people don’t want to be slowed down by such things as imagery?
Lee Childs’ superb minimalist writing of Reacher’s travels and Spartan way of life seem to lose nothing in the ambiance. Kenneth Graham in Wind in the Willows is filled with sights sounds and smells along the river bank and in the wild, wild wood. Which of these famous novelists is right? And why do we enjoy their work so much?
Lee Child’s is a natural story teller. He has perfected a character who I suspect we all would like to be or to know – seemingly free and untamed, going where he likes with few worldly goods to slow him down. Women like sexy Jack’s love and leave ‘em style; men envy his resilience and irresistibility to women.
Reading Wind in the Willows wafts the reader into a dreamlike state, as though he or she is actually living in the painting, where Rattie rows on the river and Mole, a fussy, solitary little animal, is coaxed into an adventure with Badger and Toad. One can smell the damp undergrowth, the scent of wildflowers in spring and feel the ever present danger of predators.
Kenneth Graham depicts an innocence which is reflected in the sights, sounds and smells of the river bank and the wild wood. This is a place where many would like to get away from the stresses of our lives and for a time escape into the imagery which he so cleverly weaves throughout the tale. Graham draws the reader so deeply into the story, that the incongruity of a rat, a mole, a badger and a toad travelling together becomes perfectly feasible. Thus the power of imagery!
So to sum up that which is obvious and about which I have waffled, sights, sounds and smells whether sparsely or lavishly presented, are necessary for the successful novel and contemporary writers would do well to remember this.