Yesterday I wrote two thousand words on a new short story. Go, me! Sometimes these things take me to funny places. I kept feeling like I was suffering from ‘white room’ syndrome, yet this story really doesn’t want a lot of physical detail. I finally realized that’s because it’s very internal to the protagonist’s mind state, and he honestly doesn’t pay much attention to his surroundings beyond the subjects of his fixation.
In short, this: Someone who doesn’t watch where their steps fall as they walk is never going to notice the arabesques of silver-white dust curving across the worn bamboo floors beneath their feet.
That’s hardly writing advice for the ages. Still, something inside me felt illuminated.
I believe in the five senses rule, at least as a guideline, but in the real world some people just don’t pay attention. If you’re writing in first or tight third, it’s awfully hard to pay that attention on behalf of a character who’s like that.
I was thinking about from the other direction this as I recently finished reading Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. He often writes in such a distant third person that he’s practically dollied his way all the way back to fourth person. Those books are written on a scale so epic it would be ridiculous if Banks weren’t so damned good at what he does. And he can (literally) take a passage of setting from molecular structure to astronomical scale in the course of a paragraph or two. What is that, a god’s eye view of the universe?
So when I’m writing about an obsessively focused character who is indifferent to what goes on around him, I can hardly go scraping under the fingernails of every corpse in the plot for additional local color. Still, it feels strange to see myself doing something, disagreeing with it, then realizing I was right all along.
Sometimes you just can’t tell.