Mimetic Writing

This is a point that I tackled in slightly different terms in my Making Your Writing Exciting at the Sentence Level post from late 2009. It’s something I’ve been seeing a lot more recently, and so I wanted to delve into it again. Writing should strive to be mimetic of the action it’s describing. As with the example of a character being chased in the older post, the short burst sentences portray the feeling of being chased, even as the words describe a chase scene. In the language falling in love example, the long, flowing sentences portray the languor and lush feelings of infatuation, even as they describe it.

When you’re writing, not only should you strive to match your writing and syntax to what you’re describing, but you should also put yourself in the situation in a physical, emotional, and, above all, logical way. Doing all of this will not only work to make your readers feel like they’re part of the situation on a conscious level, but on a subconscious one as well. As always, you should strive to make writing work and blend, not stand out or pull the reader out of the story.

I’ve been reading a lot of scenes that just don’t make syntax sense or logic sense. For example, I find an action sequence unrealistic if your character stops to describe the scene, the characters, the mood, or any of the action in too much sensory detail. Why? Well, imagine fighting some baddies Matrix-style. As bullets zoom by you, are you really stopping to reflect on a character’s sleek black trench? Or describe the marble hall that’s currently getting blasted to hell? No. Action and danger spike adrenaline and tunnel your vision and senses. Or they make one persistent detail stand out. How many times have you heard grief-ridden or traumatized people/characters say, “And for some reason, I remember looking out the window and seeing this random kid crossing the street, and that’s all I remember from that time at the hospital when Dad passed.” You’re only paying attention to the things you need to survive, or sometimes your conscious mind isn’t working at all. So not only does superfluous description during an action sequence seem unnecessary and slow the pacing, I also just don’t buy it.

The inverse is true, too. If your character is paying really careful attention to someone or something, vague description just isn’t going to cut it. If she’s looking into his eyes (is there a bigger cliche?), she most likely wouldn’t find them just “beautiful” or simply “captivating,” but she’d go into detail. This is an easy consideration, and perfectly logical, but it’s just one more small thing for writers to keep in their heads when they’re writing and people do forget

Whenever we describe something, we draw the reader’s attention to it. This doesn’t just apply to how we describe something, it counts for what we describe, too. We are the story’s curator, using all the tools in our storytelling arsenal to guide the reader through the tale. Mimetic writing — imitating the action of what’s being described — is a subtle way to do just that. Description is another related skill. Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of description missteps. Next week, I think I’ll talk about overdescribing and underdescribing, the twin traps that some writers can fall into as they’re building their stories.

I’ve just come off a very invigorating weekend at the NYC Teen Author Festival — hanging out with friends and colleagues, listening to panels, soaking in the collective brilliance of this industry — and will also come up with a post to somehow distill the experience, though I’m having a hard time articulating exactly what about last week’s events impressed and inspired me so much. A thank you to all the authors, writers, librarians, booksellers involved…and to the achingly marvelous David Levithan for his tireless work and incredible insights, especially on Saturday’s LGBT panel!

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  1. Lydia Sharp’s avatar

    “If she’s looking into his eyes (is there a bigger cliche?),”

    Congratulations! You’ve succeeded in making me spew coffee onto my laptop this morning! You have 5 business days to respond or else forfeit your prize package. :D

    (Seriously, though, I hate the “looking into his eyes” thing. And this whole post is spot-on advice. Awesome.)

  2. Rose Green’s avatar

    Excellent post! My crit group just got done with a voice workshop, and one of the things I particularly noticed in the examples we looked at how well the internal rhythm of the text fit the action of the moment. Two in particular were a passage from Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, and a passage from The Deathly Hallows. The first paragraph of the WL passage is long, lush, and descriptive as Ash is giving in to her fascination with the faeries. The second paragraph follows with the short, punchy sentences of escape. The DH example was from where Harry’s making himself leave everyone and go into the forest. The rhythm seems to roll on and on, despite him wanting someone to stop him and drag him back. Both of the passages are really, really well done; a kind of “show” that you don’t think about much but that’s important, as you’ve explained here.

  3. Elizabeth May’s avatar

    Mary, this is a FANTASTIC post, and I think many writers could benefit from reading it.

    It reminds me of this book I was reading recently, and this is part of the reason I had so much difficulty getting into the prose. When the author did have the character (in first person) pay careful attention to something, it was so devoid of any tangible description. All of it was generic (a tattoo being described as beautiful, but saying nothing about what, exactly, the tattoo looked like). And then when the author got to action scenes, everything became hyperdescribed – like a Matrix fight without the franticness and immediacy.

    I definitely don’t want to pick on authors for doing this, but I find that when the prose doesn’t match the scene, it’s very jarring. It takes me out of the character’s immediate situation, and then I do this sentence nitpick thing where I rewrite them mentally.

  4. Amy Christine Parker’s avatar

    Great post-sometimes we all need a “no more nonsense” kick in the butt to jar us out of writing that isn’t working-even though on some level you know it isn’t, it’s easy to forget the basic lessons sometimes. I like the idea of writers as curators-heading back to my WIP now to make sure there are more Monets than dogs playing poker!

  5. Lindsey Lane’s avatar

    “We are the story’s curator, using all the tools in our storytelling arsenal to guide the reader through the tale.”
    Thank you for those wise words.

  6. Lisa Albert’s avatar

    The timing of this post is perfect! :-)

    The NYC event sounds amazing!!

    (Love that insanely gorgeous cover on your sidebar!!)

  7. Zach’s avatar

    And . . . it’s time to go back to my draft now, b/c I’m sure I have a
    “and even though [main character's] head was about to get lopped off, he could see every one of his executioner’s nose hairs, and count them twice” somewhere.

  8. Beth Hull’s avatar

    Haha, about Zach’s comment above.

    Going back to my work-in-progress today to check that the syntax & logic reflect the situation. Thanks for the timely reminder.

  9. Melissa K’s avatar

    Thanks, Mary. This is a great post. I love the metaphor of the writer as the story’s curator.

    I’ve noticed that some writers use descriptions that don’t fit their story’s voice. In a story about an inner-city kid, these writers might choose the right moment to use detailed description but build a metaphor about nature that doesn’t suit the setting or the main character’s personality. Have you noticed this sort of thing? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

  10. Rebecca C.’s avatar

    Awesome post. This is something I think about and try to do, but I didn’t know what it was called.

    David Levithan is so cool, one of my favourite authors. That LGBT panel sounds amazing, which I could’ve been there!

  11. Tamara Paulin’s avatar

    Thanks for the great word! I use VCR-terms when I’m editing … “here the action is on pause, now rewinding, oops I hoped we were going into real-time but it’s slow-motion advance while the character describes the flavor of barf … come on, really? …”

  12. June’s avatar

    This was a great post. I’ve never thought of it quite like this before. Now I have to make sure I’m not making these kind of mistakes. I don’t think I am, but I’ll certainly be looking at my writing with a more critical eye! Thanks so much for this little mini lesson!

    …and lots of times, she DOES look into his eyes…and loves it!…Lol…

  13. Lynne’s avatar

    Great “craft” post. Thanks, Mary!

  14. Megan’s avatar

    Thanks for this helpful post. I’ve been editing my WIP and I was trying to put my finger on what was off. My MC has just arrived in a new place and everything is different. After reading this post, I realized it’s the level of detail that’s missing. Good description is essential because she is taking everything in, trying to make sense of her new world. Thanks for helping me figure out where to go with my edits.

  15. MM’s avatar

    Stanley Fish’s book How To Write a Sentence is a great (albeit lengthy) treatment of this topic, even if many of his examples were taken from literature too old/obscure for my taste. It’s worth a look.

  16. Beaulah Pragg’s avatar

    Great post! Thank you so much. It’s some of these subtle things that make all the difference to our writing, so thanks for pointing them out. **Off to have a go**
    =)

  17. Caroline’s avatar

    Thank you for this post. I just started my own blog a few weeks ago and having been looking for tips to improve my blog and writing.

    If you ever check out my blog, please feel free to email me with feedback.

    Thank you.

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