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09:16 am: Wright's Writing Corner: Writing Tips--Measurement By Example

Measurements by example:  Tall as a man, rather than six feet high, where applicable.

 

Hmm. I have promised to write a post on each of my on each of my Writing Tips. Not sure I have a whole lot to say about this one, though. It is pretty straightforward.

This idea was suggested by my friend Von. She felt that measurements like six feet often left a person with no particular mental image, while “the height of a man” was much easier to mentally picture.

 

Since I could not tell you on larger measurements if a particular length were 100’ or 1000’, I immediately took to this idea. I do not always remember to use it, and sometimes it does not seem appropriate, but here are a few examples.

 

“This arching gate was flanked by giant tusks, nine times the size of a man, which shone with an ivory light.” (from Prospero In Hell)

 

 “The tiny serpentine dragon was about the length of a pencil.”

 

“Around the corner lumbered a gigantic mammoth over four car lengths long.”

 

“I hefted the MacGuffin. It weighted about as much as three gallons of milk.”

 

“The drooling Hobgrobbernob shambled toward me. He was about an Olympic swimming pool away. Unfortunately, the terrain was flat grass not deep water.”

 

“I ran. It continued to shamble. Soon, the distance was more like a soccer field. Then two soccer fields. Then three. Maybe today would not be my last day after all.”

 

It is pretty simple. Pick the length, size, etc. you want to express. Thing of some recognizable object of a similar length. Describe the measurement in terms of the recognizable object.

 

You get the picture.




Comments

[User Picture]
From:cdenmier
Date:May 12th, 2010 01:38 pm (UTC)
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A good point. Kind of like a "show-don't-tell" kind of a rule. Make the image stick in their mind.
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From:dessieoctavia
Date:May 12th, 2010 02:20 pm (UTC)
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Good one. I sometimes apply this to time measurements - "he paused for a heartbeat" sort of thing, but I don't think I've used it for spatial ones. Will have to.
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From:arhyalon
Date:May 12th, 2010 02:22 pm (UTC)
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Oh, I hadn't thought of using it with time. What a good idea!
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From:superversive
Date:May 12th, 2010 05:01 pm (UTC)
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I come up against this with units of time routinely. What I laughingly call my Magnificent Octopus is set in a middling-low-tech fantasy milieu; they have mechanical clocks, but nobody has ever thought of putting faces and hands on them (which took a while to invent in our world, too). Consequently, they have no precise terms for small units of time; for periods less than an hour they use fractions of an hour and leave it at that. Very short intervals are described, um, shall we say, in interestingly non-literal ways.

This kind of thing bulks up the writing muscles like anything. I also need to avoid calling attention to the linguistic situation by avoiding the use of words that still draw attention to themselves as non-English — especially Latin, Greek, and French terms. Usually this is no problem, because as George Orwell said, there is little need for the hundreds of foreign words and phrases cluttering up English writing. However, there is one visibly Latin phrase that is jolly dam’ hard to do without, and has no native English equivalent: vice versa. Coming up with an idiom to substitute for that took me a lot of hard thinking.
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From:arhyalon
Date:May 12th, 2010 05:05 pm (UTC)
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"And the other way around" ?

But you are entirely right. It is really hard to catch all the words that just don't fit and harder to replace them.

That is one reason why I really don't like terms like "African America" for what is basically a physical description. A black man could exist in many worlds. The phrase African American, on the other hand, leads to oddness even now, when people want to describe non-Americans.
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From:marycatelli
Date:May 13th, 2010 04:18 am (UTC)
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How very accurate for time! There was a court case where a champion presented himself and after a time, demanded that he win the case, since an opposing champion had not presented himself -- nones perhaps. Which entailed a long proceeding about whether it really was nones.

I grimaced a bit when I read a historical where a man demanded a woman be ready by a given hour and was annoyed that she wasn't ready to hop at the moment the church bells rang.
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From:brni
Date:May 12th, 2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
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It's also a good way to reflect something about your narrator or POV character at the same time.

So my enthusiastic-but-not-necessarily-nice water fey described something such: "a waterproof bundle about the size an' weight of a sack of drowned cats."
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From:arhyalon
Date:May 12th, 2010 02:40 pm (UTC)
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Good point! Also, one could use it to tell about time period. If I'd have thought of it earlier, I would have had Miranda use a few measurement references from things that aren't around any more. "As long as a buggy whip" or something.
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From:maradydd
Date:May 12th, 2010 05:16 pm (UTC)
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Time period and also the setting itself. Is this a fantasy piece set in a lush jungle, where if the weather drops below 70 it is unusually chilly? Comparing, say, a diamond to an ice cube would be awfully unusual unless the point-of-view character were someone fantastically rich.

(Heh. Now I have an idea for a caper story where the main character is a poor thief sent by a corrupt nobleman to steal a gem. The nobleman might be able to afford a sorcerer to create ice for him, and the thief, with a skewed understanding of wealth, thinks that an ice cube must be fairly small -- and steals the wrong gem...)
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From:marycatelli
Date:May 12th, 2010 03:35 pm (UTC)
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Oh, yeah.
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From:marycatelli
Date:May 12th, 2010 03:02 pm (UTC)
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A subclass of use your senses. (As well as your sense. 0:)
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From:marycatelli
Date:May 12th, 2010 03:34 pm (UTC)
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Hmm. come to think of it, I would quibble about this:


“The tiny serpentine dragon was about the length of a pencil.”


I think if it's the length of a pencil we will take "tiny" for granted. 0:)
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:May 12th, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC)
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I sense that you are not grokking the spirit of "anything that can be described can be described more."

;-)
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From:marycatelli
Date:May 12th, 2010 04:26 pm (UTC)
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Nah, I grab that spirit by its scrawny little neck, pound its head against the wall a few times, and throw it out the window as far as it can. And if it comes back, I throw bricks at it.

Once actually read a published story featuring "a hermaphroditic figure of indeterminate sex."
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:May 12th, 2010 05:17 pm (UTC)
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I disagree! "The serpentine dragon" brought an image of indeterminate but persumably dragonish size, so adding "size of a pencil" gave a jolt to that image. I think it needed "tiny" as a warning. ;-)

Also this is an unusual dragon in an unusual world (one with pencils) so some redundancy is helpful, at least to me. In real life you'd have kind of a double-take, so double reduncancy fits.
From:primatezone
Date:May 12th, 2010 09:44 pm (UTC)

Units vs. description

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All good as it goes, but I'd be careful to make sure that your items being compared are consonant with each other and with the setting. Otherwise, the reader gets pulled out of the fictive dream to try to reconcile two different worlds. If you're going to compare a mammoth to a car, your world better be one in which mammoths and cars co-exist. Likewise drooling Hobergrobbers and swimming pools.

On the other hand, a setting appropriate yet striking comparison would achieve the effect of vivid description you're after. A giant's barrel-sized fists. A dagger no longer than a woman's finger. Even using made-up units of measure can be vivid. For example, Gene Wolfe does it rather nicely in the Books of the New Sun (Shadow of the Torturer, Sword of the Lictor, etc.). It may not be immediately obvious how long a "chain" is or how much time a "watch" is supposed to take, but they do make sense eventually, and add to the verisimilitude of his world.
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From:superversive
Date:May 13th, 2010 06:10 am (UTC)

Re: Units vs. description

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Actually, chains and watches are (or have been) real units of time and distance. A chain is 66 feet in English measure; a watch, in naval terminology, is four hours.

However, your point about drooling Hobergrobbers is well taken. I think my next-door neighbours have a Hobergrobber in their swimming pool, but I’m afraid to go over and see for myself. By the noise it makes, it seems to be a younger relation of Choggenmugger.
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From:arhyalon
Date:May 13th, 2010 12:15 pm (UTC)

Re: Units vs. description

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Hobergrobbers are droolier than Choggenmuggers and much fatter than Jaberwockies.
From:primatezone
Date:May 13th, 2010 08:47 pm (UTC)

Re: Units vs. description

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Doh! I forgot that one of Gene Wolfe's charms is that he *doesn't* make up words (or at least in that series of books he doesn't). Instead, he uses incredibly obscure words(or in the cases I foolishly cited, not so obscure words) that are wonderfully evocative. (Huh, three -ly adverbs in one sentence. I'm slipping.) Who can forget zoanthrope, fuligin, dimarchii, or falchion?
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From:arhyalon
Date:May 14th, 2010 12:20 pm (UTC)

Re: Units vs. description

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That's something John loves about Gene Wolfe, too.
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From:arhyalon
Date:May 14th, 2010 12:20 pm (UTC)

Re: Units vs. description

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>Huh, three -ly adverbs in one sentence. I'm slipping.)

Slipping! You know that gets you points here in the country of the Society for the Redemption of Adverbs.
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From:arhyalon
Date:May 13th, 2010 12:09 pm (UTC)

Re: Units vs. description

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> If you're going to compare a mammoth to a car, your world better be one in which mammoths and cars co-exist. Likewise drooling Hobergrobbers and swimming pools.

Definitely!

For the purpose of the exercise above, all events described take place on modern day earth. (Except for the first one, of course, which takes place at the gate to Hell.)

Another poster commented on this, too, how non modern settings can be enhanced through picking the right comparisons.

From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 15th, 2010 09:48 pm (UTC)
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In some countries, "tall as a man" would come nowhere close to 6 feet. You say a black man could exist anywhere, so African-American is inappropriate? Not so sure. Both white and black in terms of race color gradations can be very different. An African-American male is likely not be the same "black" as a Zulu man. Perhaps you should avoid the American/Western labels altogether and, if the color of a character's skin is important, describe the color instead of applying an arbitrary label such as "black". Do you describe an Asian man as "yellow" or a Navajo man as "red"? That goes for "tall as a man" too. Didn't you just write that things that can be described can be described some more?
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From:arhyalon
Date:May 16th, 2010 12:33 pm (UTC)
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Color descriptioins of people are useful, I'll go so far as say necessary, for good mental descriptions. Asians don't look yellow to me, so I'm sure I'd never describe them that way, but skin colors come in black, chocolate, coffee, coffee with cream, caramel, terra-cotta and a million other colors.

Of course, in fantasy stories black-skinned characters are often actually black-skinned...which few if any humans are (most "Black" humans being shades of brown.)

Nonetheless, right now, there is no politically correct way for an American to describe a man who is dark in skin color but not from America and when they try it is often a tad embarrassing--such as the guy who said "An African-American from Africa." Of course, the person he was talking about had never been an American in any sense of the word.
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From:arhyalon
Date:May 16th, 2010 01:57 pm (UTC)
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Two additional comments.

When I say skin color is important to a description, it is as important as eye color, hair color, size and all the other things that help readers draw a mental picture of the character.

As to specifics...writing is about creating impressions, not about specifics, except where the specifics matter. If one reader sees a five foot guy and one a seven foot guy for "as tall as a man" that's fine, even if you said "55 feet", some readers would picture 40' and some 70'.

Other kinds of specifics are covered by POV issues. If your POV is an American, you would not distinguish between African Tribes or European nations in a physical description of a "black" or "white" man, as Americans don't know that information. If, on the other hand, one was writing No. 1 Lady's Detective Agency (which takes place in Botswana) or a story set in Germany or Spain, then your viewpoint character would have much more specific knowledge as to African or European nationalities.
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