Creative Writing: Descriptive Accuracy (Even in a Fantasy) is Very, Very Important

Posted on October 9, 2012


I have tried several times now to start the novel Eragon by Christopher Paolini.  A friend loaned it to me, raving about how wonderful it is.  It’s the first in a successful series of books.  It’s been made into a movie with an all-star cast.  But somehow, reading it is laborious and distracting.

Here’s my problem:  when I read descriptive language, my visual centers kick in and I soon forget that I am reading at all; it is as if a movie is unfolding in front of me.  Unless the descriptive language makes no sense, and then the images that are gliding along in my mind evaporate instantly as my rational mind takes over:  what?  It’s sort of like that vrrp! sound of yanking the needle arm off of an old vinyl record.

I have not gotten very far yet.  In the opening scene of the book, three riders are cantering along in the moonlight.  One carries a pouch in her lap vvrrrrp!  Huh?  I’ve done a fair bit of cantering on horses and nothing will stay in your lap, in fact you don’t even really have a lap while in the saddle… um…?  A river rumbles, but a waterfall has a dull sound of a thousand splashes vvrrpp!  Huh? This is not what rivers and waterfalls sound like!  Later, we are introduced to a village, where a chimney belches black smoke vvvrrrpp! Why is it black?  Black is not a normal color for wood smoke…. um…

Character behavior is a problem too.  We soon meet our hero Eragon, hunting deer when a huge explosion occurs.  The first thing he does is try to shoot the fleeing deer.  Only after losing them does he seem alarmed by the explosion.  Upon finding a mysterious and “frightening” stone where the explosion occurred, he pops it into his pack and goes to sleep.  Vvvrrrp!  Huh?  Is this how characters behave in this universe?

I’ve learned something here:  when writing creatively, your descriptions and your character behaviors need to be realistic as well as consistent.  Otherwise your reader will not be able to suspend her disbelief and let you pull her into your story.  The images forming from your words will be at odds with the reader’s experience, and in my case at least, this shatters the illusion and I have to repeatedly and consciously set aside the resulting dissonance to continue the story.  The worst thing is, it’s happening on nearly every page so far.

Experience is exactly the problem.  I did not know it when I started trying to read Eragon, but its author, Christopher Paolini, wrote it between the ages of 15 and 19.  Ah.

It is a remarkable work, especially from such a young author, but I think what we have here is a mismatch between the relative experience levels of the author and the reader.  As a much younger reader, I probably could have enjoyed this story at face value, because my mind would just have woven the images presented to it without complaint.  Unfortunately, I have lived long enough, and traveled and seen and done enough things, that my mind does complain now about inaccurate imagery, and I can’t just tell it to shut up.

They say “write what you know.”  I have long had problems with novels involving the CIA or soldiers or tropical jungles or certain other things that I know something about.  When the novels stray out of the boundaries of the believable, they lose me.  But Eragon is something new:  a novel that loses me just based on everyday objects like chimneys and waterfalls and horses.  And yet, it has a dedicated fan following (including my friend).  Do other people not notice the descriptive inaccuracies?  Are most people no longer exposed to things like chimneys, waterfalls, and horses?  Or… when people read, don’t they see the imagery?  Now I’m curious about that.

I briefly considered just watching the movie on Netflix, but fans of the book lamented that the movie bore little resemblance to the novel.  So I will continue to plow ahead with the book.  It has too many dedicated fans to dismiss it out of hand; there’s probably a great story here, so I’m willing to do a little work to get at it.

If I manage to get through it, I’ll let you know what I think.