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.
Units vs. description
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.
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.
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.