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The Real Elements of Style

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Mar. 17th, 2011 | 05:33 pm
mood: curiouscurious

These are actually elements of content, but that wouldn't be a snappy title alluding to a well-known book. So sue me.

Recently, I was reading a book in which it rained a lot. And I realized something: I really like it when it rains in books.

I wondered if perhaps this was weird. I could rationalize it, certainly. Rain, especially accompanied by darkness, thunderclouds, and/or cold, is atmospheric in a way that I like. It narrows the scope of the world, drawing a curtain over everything outside a character's immediate surroundings. The search for shelter can bring people together or push them into places they wouldn't ordinarily go. It also lends itself to body-centered writing, bringing us closer to a character's experience by showing how this affects her physically (generally, in the direction of "cold and wet").

My use of the word "rationalize" doesn't mean that these things aren't true or that they don't contribute to my appreciation for fictional precipitation. Still, these factors don't seem to touch the satisfaction I feel when it starts raining in my reading, whether the characters are indoors or out. This had me thinking about things and situations to which I have not-immediately-logical-warm fuzzies, or an equally illogical growly feeling. I thought about potential explanations of these reactions, but again, I think they only partly cover it.

Note: these are not things that it inherently makes sense to like or dislike, given my taste. For example, I'm pleased when magic and swords show up, because I like high fantasy; I'm annoyed when a story's few female characters are ineffectual, because I'm a feminist. These things aren't like that.

  • Beaches - I like 'em. Not sure why, although they do make nice battle backdrops. I especially like settings on beaches, because they allow characters to spend time on the beach with less immediate risk that they may get on a boat.

  • Boats - This is possibly my weirdest reading hang-up. I like boats in real life. I like sailing or paddling on the water. But when fictional characters get on a seabound vessel, I make a frowny face. I'm pretty sure this is because I perceive maritime scenes as often being written the same way. Authors use the same terms to describe the sea, and the same things happen when characters are at sea. "Oh, here comes the obligatory storm-at-sea scene." Supporting this theory are the facts that I don't mind boats that are large enough to basically be floating towns in which the action takes place disconnected from the whole "boat" aspect, nor do I mind when characters hop in a canoe to go downriver a bit.

  • Cities - This is sort of the opposite of boats. In real life, cities terrify me. In fiction, they fascinate me. Also, they have an excellent chance of being home to plot.

  • Cooking - Okay, guys, I love when authors get into details over food. I for serious do. But even more than that, I love when they get into cooking. Especially when the food is of a kind, or prepared in a way, with which I'm unfamiliar. This fits neatly with my appreciation for fantasy in which the author has thought out how everyday life - including food - works in the fantasy world.

  • Cowboys - I don't like 'em. Seems strange, given that I like action, adventure, and horses. The fact that I dislike guns may have something to do with this. I also credit that bodice-ripping Western I picked up as a bright-eyed twelve-year-old, expecting horses and excitement, only to put it down when our cowboy protagonist is given a present of two girls who may or may not be underage, with whom he undertakes a graphic drunken threesome sex scene containing acts that I'd not been aware were physically possible. This is the first book I definitively remember putting aside for good without finishing it. Also, there were NO HORSES.

  • Forests - What can I say? I like me some trees.

  • Guns - Don't like 'em, but I can make exceptions depending on the genre I'm reading.

  • Travel Scenes in Books that Aren't Actually About Journeys - I prefer that these be skimmed over. Otherwise, there had better be some killer character interaction, because otherwise let me tell you what will happen: there will be a lot of scenery, and then our POV character will start indulging in flashbacks and/or reminiscing. Do you know why that is? BECAUSE S/HE IS BORED. AND SO AM I.

  • Mansions - I am a huge sucker for scenes in which characters, alone or in small groups, explore big, rambling houses. Or castles, or even ruins. Especially if there may be magic involved. Especially if it's creepy.

  • Parties - The natural habitat of interesting characters and plot advancement. I'm always excited when the characters decide to go to a party. Bonus: in fantasy, there are likely to be cool magical decorations.

  • What the Bad Guys are Up To - Assuming the transitions aren't awkward and the villains aren't cardboard, and especially when there's discord in the antagonists' camp, I love to see what's going on with them. I think this is partly because villains have so many more options for dealing with disagreements among themselves than do good guys. Even if their goals and personalities are anathema, White Hats are expected to more or less make nice. Bad guys are much more flexible. I'm sure there's some level of wish fulfillment in reading about the, "I don't like him, therefore I will have him poisoned," thought process. Plus, having life-and-death struggles within their side as well as between them and their opponents means a lot of tension and excitement. (Good guys, in theory, hold up their end of the story's tension based on the fact that you care more about them and want them to succeed.)



None of which is to say that I can't feel differently about these things depending on how they're done, of course.

I'm sure most everyone has instant satisfaction/annoyance triggers like these. One blogger I read mentioned she won't read a book that prominently features fairies. Can you think of any that you have?
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Comments {4}

"Also, I can kill you with my brain."

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from: toastedcheese
date: Mar. 18th, 2011 01:39 am (UTC)
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Okay, so I should write you a story about a cook in a mansion in a rainy seaside city that's set during a party? Or actually, there are enough elements there that I recognize from your third novel that I guess I won't bother! (Although I guess you didn't get a chance to put in any good parties!)

I really like good scenery descriptions, in part I am trying to learn things about geography and climate and such, and am impressed when writers clearly know what real landscapes look like. Ditto cities that feel somewhat like real pre-industrial cities.

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Anica Lewis

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from: anicalewis
date: Mar. 19th, 2011 01:05 am (UTC)
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Re: putting in good parties, that's what sequels are for, right? I haven't gotten to write a lot of villains yet, either. One of these days . . .

Whereas the worst possible story for me is cowboys shooting guns on a sea journey. Which is exactly what that bodice-ripping Western was about, up until the shipwreck and subsequent crazy sex with Island Natives. One of my friends has theorized that my seemingly unrelated dislikes of fictional boats and cowboys actually both stem from this book. I think that's probably not true.

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from: magic_7_words
date: Mar. 18th, 2011 10:01 pm (UTC)
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Lately I've developed a definite taste for deserts and snow. I attribute this mostly to the fact that if an author bothers to set his/her story in extreme heat or cold, these conditions will work their way into the story and the setting will feel more vivid. On the flip side, forests and cities bore me simply because 99% of them are the same.

I do not like prophecies. Don't think that quite counts as an indicator of taste, because I like many of my favorite books in spite of their prophecies. Erm... in a nutshell, I'm a fan of free will and plain speaking, so if you absolutely must tell somebody their own future, say what you want to say and be done, dammit.

I agree with you about boats.

And I stay away from anything involving orcs or halflings, because as far as I'm concerned anyone using those terms has already forfeited their claim to creativity.

It goes without saying that Tolkien is exempt from all of the above.

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Anica Lewis

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from: anicalewis
date: Mar. 19th, 2011 12:59 am (UTC)
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That's a great point about the settings. I think it's part of why I like rain, too. If the author bothers with weather, that's usually a good sign. (Unless it's a storm at sea, of course.)

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