Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Writing in Both 3-D and 2-D

The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscotting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.

This opening paragraph from Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses is, for me, a supreme example of a writer simultaneously thinking about 3-D and 2-D in their work. In 3-D, this passage has the sensual details that bring the scene to life. We hear the floorboards, we see the flickering light, we feel the warm candle wax. Also in 3-D, we get the deep and restrained emotion of a character coming to encounter the body of a lost loved one.

The 2-dimensional aspect of the writing comes from the beautiful language used in this passage. Listen to the sounds and the internal rhymes in "lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass" or phrases like "guttered candlestub." Also, notice how McCarthy decided to ignore standard rules of punctuation so that his prose isn't interrupted by too many commas.

When we write, it's important to think about both the 3-D aspects of the writing--the details that make the passage feel tangible and emotional--and the 2-D aspects of writing--the language, the words on the page. Both of these elements combine to create a satisfying read.

Can you have one without the other?

I personally tend to err on the side of more 3-D than 2-D. I think I use a lot of vivid details and focus on the emotion. Other writers, including some entries in our first Genre Wars contest, focused more on the surface technical aspects of the writing. Yes, you can have one without the other. The reader might not even notice. But, when both are working together, you'll statistically have a better chance of engaging more readers and probably engage the readers' mind during more of your story (when the story lags, the language might still be engaging and vice versa.)

Sometimes, during revisions, I can get trapped into the mindset of only seeing one of these components and forgetting about the other. That's fine on a draft, but it can lead to shallow work if you don't eventually remember to go back again and consider the other component.

Questions:
Do work in both 3-D and 2-D? Is there one that you tend to lean toward naturally?

Give us some examples where you have both working in harmony!

26 comments:

  1. Excellent example, and a great post.

    I have never thought of it in terms of 3-D and 2-D - only 3-D but it makes perfect sense. Since I write genre fiction, I definitely focus more on 3-D. That's not to say 2-D is not important.

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  2. I'd never read this paragraph and you are completely right. It is an astonishing example of writing characters with fully engaged senses.

    The spatial awareness is also beyong reproach, we learn what is under, behind, above etc. the character.

    I'm also a huge fan of internal rhyming and it is very well done here.

    Great post.

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  3. I too haven't thought it this way. Very interesting and a great excerpt.

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  4. Okay. I'll post an excerpt from my WIP, and I'd be curious to hear people's opinions about whether the 3-D and 2-D aspects work.

    A little background: It's late fall, 1862. Thomas and Sara are recently married, and Thomas has been drafted into the Confederate army. Sara doesn't want him to go, but Thomas feels he must. He's put it off as long as possible, but now it's time to leave, and in this scene he's trying to screw up the courage to tell her.

    Here goes:

    They walked several miles into the afternoon sun, their hands clasped together. She talked a little about chores left to do and a neighbor child’s fever breaking, and he gave a few responses, but eventually she eyed him warily and clung to him tighter and sank into silence. So he listened to their footfalls and the sounds the forest made and he looked around them at the brilliant reds and yellows and oranges and browns of the dying leaves still clinging to their branches past all reason. When they got to Green Spring Creek they turned and followed the bank upstream to the flat sun-dappled spot where they’d spent hours together in spring and summer sitting and talking of their plans and dreams and secret fears while they drew out of the water speckled trout longer than their four hands laid side by side. Now they just sat together on a boulder at the creek’s edge, their feet dangling over the water.

    He stooped to pick up a pebble and flung it, sidearmed, out across the creek. It skipped up out of the water’s surface, once, and again, four times in all, then rose no more. Above, two lines of martins winged southward in close formation. For a moment he looked out over the beautiful upturned withering of the earth and felt that he and Sara were the only two people in the world, the only ones who ever were, and all the life he knew or had ever heard of was nothing but the fading remembrance of a finished dream. Then the moment passed, brought under at last like the skipping rock, and he tried to mourn the one as little as the other.

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  5. LOVE THIS POST. And okay, I'll bite. But I'm not going to hunt through for a scene. Here's what I'm working on right this minute, and it isn't emotional--it's the start of a slow reveal of a magical world. It's also commercial, not literary, but I am trying to still invoke both 3D and 2D elements. Have I succeeded? I just wrote it, so I haven't a clue. Opinions?

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  6. I had to close my mouth with a snap. Ethan quirked an eyebrow into a question mark, but I shrugged and shook my head.

    “Whatever.”

    “No, no, chica.” Mama Rosa raised my chin with two fingers and made me look into her eyes. “There is no ‘whatever’ in life. ‘Whatever’ sucks the fun right out of it.”

    “And what do I want?” Kat leaned back against the navy vinyl seat. The lamp swinging gently overhead formed an orb on the shiny vinyl like Van Gogh’s Starry Night beside Kat’s perfect, expectant face.

    Small, twin Mama Rosas reflected in the oversized dark glass Kat still wore to hide her blackened eyes, and both of them frowned at Kat. “Cappuccino and a chocolate croissant, you are not as exotic as you wish you were.”

    Kat’s eyes widened a fraction. The three of us watched Mama Rosa head back to the coffee bar to leave our order with the barrista. Her gauzy, hippy-chic skirt matched the décor and the rhythmic music that managed to make itself heard over the pulse of conversation in the crowded room.

    I couldn’t see the musicians from where I sat, but the song sounded Carribean and wild, as though it was on the edge of control and the next note or two could send it spiraling over into something not quite sane. A little like my life at the moment. I liked it.

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  7. Dolly, I think like many things, you probably already know about what I've described here. Sometimes, I think it's useful just to phrase something in a different way because I've found that I can sometimes learn something new (and unrelated) based on shifts in terminology. And, I agree that genre writing can/should also consider the 2-D.

    Mayowa, It was this passage that really helped me understand the beauty of internal rhymes in prose. I never quite understood the point of it until I read this.

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  8. T. Zuccini, I'm glad you liked the excerpt. It's one that sticks in my head.

    Jabez, I think that's quite beautiful. For me, the imagery with the trout and the pebble is especially strong. It was more unexpected than, for instance, "the sun-dappled spot." This passage worked emotionally for me too, especially in the two moments where they were quiet. Thanks so much for offering up your excerpt!

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  9. Adventures, I love that! Thanks for putting it up. Some GREAT sentences: "The lamp swinging gently overhead formed an orb on the shiny vinyl like Van Gogh’s Starry Night beside Kat’s perfect, expectant face. " and "Small, twin Mama Rosas reflected in the oversized dark glass Kat still wore to hide her blackened eyes, and both of them frowned at Kat. " and "the song sounded Carribean and wild, as though it was on the edge of control and the next note or two could send it spiraling over into something not quite sane." I think the first two work on both levels. For me, the third one is more in the realm of 3-D, and it's so strong that I don't miss the 2-D. I think that's a good example of how a section of writing can be constantly moving from 3-D to 2-D and continue to work.

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  10. Wow, I haven't written anything in a couple of weeks. I've been feeling pretty down. But, these passages are inspiring me to start up again. Thank you!

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  11. Jabez, that's just gorgeous writing. I wish I'd written "the beautiful upturned withering of the earth." But if I can talk about the 3D aspects, I might suggest that this passage is very visual; what's missing is the tactile experience: the feel of the afternoon sun on their skin, the smells of the drying leaves, and that sort of thing. Not that I feel the lack of those things; I was deliberately looking for them is all.

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  12. Davin, this is an excellent post! I love how you describe it as 3-D and 2-D. I had to think really hard to come up with something that might work. It's from one of the short stories that inspired me to write Monarch, interestingly enough. I think we get this 2-D and 3-D writing a lot when we delve into poetry. That is why I love poetry.

    This is from "Sounding Light" and takes place after the woman has found out that she will never see her lover again.

    ***

    As the weather warms, the owl’s kills are no longer softened by feet of frozen snow, but begin to echo through trees miles away. My ears have grown accustomed to his hours and habits—to the slightest ruffle of his movements, and I realize that he is no longer quiet to my senses, but as loud as light rising over the ridges at dawn, wrenching its way through boughs and drifts of snow in sword-like shafts that cause the canyons and meadows and lakes to shriek when they are pierced. When the sun rises each morning, it seems I am the only silence. Morning walks reveal a weeping forest of melting snow and ice sliding down bare branches and rocks, down hillsides and cliffs until it finally reaches the lake’s translucent skin of cracking ice.

    There are groans from the lake as it cracks and snaps open like an old wound that has not healed. I listen to the painful noises while standing amidst trees, my eyes shielded against the rising sun and melting ice. The ground trembles under my feet as the groaning squeezes its way through frozen soil and roots, up through my own body, and finally through trunks of trees until it catches the sky and releases sound. As it passes my heart, I am rigid with the connection between myself and the lake—it cracks because of light and warmth, and groans because it is shedding a thick skin that causes the life beneath to scrape its belly against sand.

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  13. Jabez and Adventures: I love both of your excerpts! Thank you so much for sharing them with us.

    Jabez, my favorite line is: "For a moment he looked out over the beautiful upturned withering of the earth and felt that he and Sara were the only two people in the world, the only ones who ever were, and all the life he knew or had ever heard of was nothing but the fading remembrance of a finished dream."

    That is so lovely, and I love how it keeps going and going, like a rambling thought and tumbles into the word 'dream.'

    Adventures, my favorite line is: "Her gauzy, hippy-chic skirt matched the décor and the rhythmic music that managed to make itself heard over the pulse of conversation in the crowded room." I like the bouncing feel in this sentence. Very nice. You have nice dialogue, too.

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  14. I don't have time to really look around for examples, so I throw out this:

    Twelve maples had long grown in the town square, but in early summer the trees caught a blight, withering and dying. It had been too hot to fell the dead trees and replant, and now it looked as if the town had sprung up around an ancient ruin.

    The sun was directly overhead so the priest’s shadow pooled directly beneath him as he strode over the green. The priest was tall and slender and in his clerics, but for his silver hair and white skin, he looked like a shadow himself, walking between the dead, leafless trees with his eyes half closed against the glare. He had left his hat at the church, and the hot sun beat down like the judgment of Heaven. The priest held one hand up over his eyes as if to ward off this judgment.

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  15. Scott, I think that's lovely. I love this line: "It had been too hot to fell the dead trees and replant, and now it looked as if the town had sprung up around an ancient ruin."

    I like the image that evokes, like a crumbling picture.

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  16. This is such a great post and blog!! (I'm also a scientist and writer, so I always love meeting people who combine both interests.)

    I guess I don't focus on 3-D as much as I should. I think you're completely right about combining both in order to make a more compelling piece. Thanks!

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  17. Oh, this is fun. I just published a new essay to my blog entitled Twenty Minute Oil Change. This is the opening paragraph:

    I am writing this from inside an incongruous amalgamation of various states of disrepair and failure. Qwik Lube is an anachronism, surrounded by hulking bodies of lustrous steel beams and girders that hold within them, like some titanic filigree, lambent windows that reflect the sun, causing the structures to shine like great, princess-cut gemstones. I, on the other hand, am in a squat white, slap-dashed tin structure, marked with the tincture of years with rust, grime, and dirt that pock its outside walls and corners like liver spots and furuncles on an old drunk. A veritable rough amongst diamonds, he looks to be either on his way up, or way down from another epic bender, attempting to forget his embarrassing lot in life. Cast to the gutter, and sleeping off a roiling hang-over, he lays, prostrated among the benthos, carrion, and detritus that swirl and scurry about him, to which, he simply mumbles, “let me be, let me be.”

    I like to THINK I've accomplished this 2D/3D writing deal that you bring up here, but I can't be sure.

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  18. Similarly, I really enjoyed Jabez's, ACP's, Glamis', and Scott's examples of the 2D/3D writing. It's wonderful to see people approaching so well. It makes me feel not so alone :)

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  19. I never, until today, thought about different dimensions of writing. Still, I know floorboards creak, condensation forms, wine spills, etc. happens in my writing. I guess I need to pay a bit more attention to the whole dimensional thing. ; )

    S

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  20. So... you're calling 3-D the content of a passage, and 2-D the language of it? Hmm. I'd agree that both need to be there in order to make a passage really sing. An example from my own writing? Sure. (This is a paragraph that got cut from my most recent short story... didn't need it for the overall arc, but it's got outer and inner details, and I kind of like the last sentence.)

    "You have taken to walking during the day instead of writing, up the rue de Cherche-Midi and over to the rue Bonaparte and then to the water, where you can stroll the Port de Saints-Pères and look at the Louvre across the water. Sometimes you walk east and across the Pont Neuf and sit in the place in front of Notre Dame and watch the tourists taking photographs, but you stop doing this after a while because you remember taking her to Notre Dame for the first time, and the pictures you took of each other standing in front of the cathedral. Paris has begun to feel cold and empty now, despite the throng of tourists and the summer-smell of the Seine."

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  21. All these excerpts are gorgeous! This blog is always a treasure box of talent and inspiration.

    I have nothing to share at the moment, but my favorite was Lady Glamis' example from Sounding Light. The description of the world mourning around the silent woman is so moving.

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  22. Fascinating stuff here, and lovely excerpts all around.

    I have nothing to share - I'm guilty of not focusing enough on 3-D, and working on fixing that now, actually.

    Thanks for the post - between the original and the comments, I have a much better idea of what I need to do now.

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  23. Hi guys.

    Interesting post. However, I have to admit, I'm not sure I fully understand what you mean by 3-D and 2-D.

    What does 3-d map to specifically? Sensory details, and PoV stuff?

    And what does 2-d map to specifically?

    I was drawn to this, initially because of the 3d analogy. I post about writing and how it's sometimes related to game development (www.ricardobare.com), so I my ears perked up. I thought at first it might be a reference to the image of the flame reflected in the glass (and the double reference to it).

    Anyway, sorry if I'm just being dense.

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  24. Michelle: "loud as light rising over the ridges at dawn" is an amazing image. This is exactly what I was talking about last week in our emails about poetic language in your prose.

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  25. Thanks, Scott. I keep trying to get this poetry into my longer works, and I can't seem to get there.

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