Weekend Writing Ramble, foreground language edition

I freely admit it: I’m a fan of Phineas and Ferb, and the whole unmarried male thing puts me pretty far down their list of periphery demographics. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about the relentless optimism that appeals to the relentless optimist in me. Anyway, one of the things I like about it is the care with which it’s produced. I only get the occasional look behind the curtain, but when I do, I’m impressed by things like this: one of the co-creators mentioned that they chose a realistic palette for the backgrounds, because that anchored the brighter-than-life colors of the characters and inventions.

I started doing something analogous with my writing around the beginning of We Sail Off To War, and it’s helped. I’ve been dividing my writing into foreground detail and background detail. I’m using the terms in a subtly different sense than an animator might: whereas a visual background is a literal background, what I mean when I say ‘foreground detail’ is the part of the scene I want to draw attention to, and it’s not necessarily always the characters.

How do you draw attention to certain parts of a scene? Well, consider:

Lightning lit the gentle slopes in a quicksilver glow, flashing in the windows of the old manor house and casting sharp shadows over the dusty carpet. Thunder rolled over the moor a moment later, underlining the steady drumming of rain against the panes. A candle on the bedside table cast a pool of light over the frail, gray-haired woman beneath the covers. “Will that be all, Mrs. Freely?” said the butler.

Lightning flashed in the windows, and a roll of thunder followed it a second later. An imposing bed dominated the room, lit only by a taper in the silver candlestick on the ornate table at the bedside. The candlelight deepened the lines of Mrs. Freely’s careworn face, and served only to make the gray of her hair even nearer white. Eyes wide, she couldn’t find the words to say, her mouth opening and closing as she clutched at the blankets covering her. The corner of his mouth twisted up in a malevolent sneer, and he took the carving knife from his tray. Biting out every word as though even the attempt at politeness was a titanic effort, he said, “Will that be all, Mrs. Freely?”

Very similar scenes1, very different foci (England is dreary, the butler is murderous). It’s not just the amount of detail that goes into a piece of prose, it’s the way in which that detail is delivered: the background details use simpler language and lean more toward telling (lightning flashed in the windows, the butler said, Mrs. Freely is frail), while the foreground details use fancier language2 and lean toward the showing side (Mrs. Freely is lined and careworn, the butler bites out his words, the bed is imposing and Mrs. Freey isn’t, the candle is described as a taper).

That’s the long and short of it, really: description and simplicity of language control what the reader sees in a scene. Laboring over the wording of every sentence and lingering over the minutiae of every detail is precisely the same as pointing the camera at every object on the set and giving it a loving close-up before you get around to the point. There’s a reason directors don’t do that: it makes the scene too busy, and it causes that most dreaded of reactions in readers: “Get on with it.”3

1. Both as purple as a grape prose-wise, but I feel like stories with butlers and manors set on moors deserve that sort of treatment.
2. Which, coming from the mediocre writer extraordinaire that is me, doesn’t necessarily mean it reads any better.
3. Obviously, I still have some work to do on this front.

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