Saturday, April 9, 2011

Eye witness

Counsel for the Prosecution, Sir Hugh Beady-Scrimshaw QC (hereinafter referred to as The Prosecution):  
Sooo...Mr. your statement to the police, you claim to have seen your wife, Mrs. Edith Flatulent, enter your house at 4:33 precisely, thereby proving that she could not have been at the High Street Jewellers at the same time conducting a robbery with a sawn-off shotgun.

Mr. Clement Flatulent, 33 Bullshit Place, Dorking, Surrey (hereinafter referred to as The Witness):  
That's right, guv'nor. I was watching telly at the time, see? And the Generation Game was on an' I 'ave a clear view into the hall from my settee. She just came in the door, went into the front room, and left a few minutes later. But, like I said to the rozzers, if she was 'ere, she couldn't 'ave been there as well, innit?

The Prosecution: (with a theatrical flourish pulls a drawing from the voluminous folds of his gown, and acknowledges applause from the gallery with a graceful inclination of his head) I present to the court a plan of Mr. Flatulent's house...
...From this plan, it is quite plain that if Mr. Flatulent was indeed sitting on his settee as he claims, then he had no sight of the front door, nor of the door to the front room. I put it to you, Mr. Flatulent, that you did not see who entered your house and cannot be sure that it was your wife.

The Witness: Oh 'eck.

Mrs. Edith Flatulent: (sobbing) It's a fair cop.

Substitute "The Author" for "The Witness", and "The Reader" for "The Prosecution", and you have a situation all too easy to get caught in. I know I often get carried away writing scenes and making assumptions about who can see what, only to have to come back and rewrite parts where I realise that what I've put on the page drives a bulldozer through the laws of physics and spatial consistency.

Anywhere that line of sight becomes important, I find it essential to draw a picture. Plans and diagrams are invaluable tools in the writer's armoury for dealing with spatial consistency.

The most common tools here are simple top-view maps and plans to establish the spatial configuration of a setting. I use floor plans of buildings and ships, and maps of various scales for towns, regions, and whole planets.
Often, these end up only partially filled in because I usually only do enough for my purpose.
These drawings help me to anchor myself in a scene (which is the subject of another post) and help to sort out questions such as line of sight (as in the opening example). Can my character realistically see what is happening down the hall? Or is the Town Hall visible from the kitchen window?

Less obvious uses are to establish realistic travel times between A and B, whether from one room of a mansion to another, or one town to the next.

Of importance in action scenes is to confirm that the action you are describing has room to take place. Does anyone remember cartoons like Tom & Jerry, where chases took place down endless hallways that would require a house the size of Buckingham Palace to accommodate? You don't want your treasured WIP to end up like that, do you?

Finally, don't neglect the third dimension, particularly for line of sight questions. Can you really see from the bedroom window into the neighbour's yard? If in doubt, draw a vertical section to scale to see if you have line of sight over that eight-foot-high wall.

Or what about seeing from the top of that hill into the valley below? Anyone remember drawing contour sections in geography class? Your poetic description of the car chase the hero watches from the trig point might be all for naught if you haven't confirmed your line of sight. Often all you can see from the top of a hill are the tops of other hills!

Of course, you could just stick with what you've written. After all, nobody will notice.

Will they?


  1. Good post! Loved your example. And this is something I haven't considered before (probably before I tend to throw all my characters in the midst of battle :p). But I should be on the look out as soon as I start writing more serious fiction.
    Again, entertaining and useful!

  2. Yeah, this was a good one and you make an excellent point, Ian. I shall also have to endeavor to remember my line of sight in stories. And, in fact, my most recent story had just such a moment. My MC had her back turned to the road as she spoke to her friend, but yet described a Honda Civic that had just pulled up to the intersection when I realized . . . oh wait, perhaps I should have her actually able to see the car first! :)

  3. :^(

    Guilty. I have a rough map, but I thoroughly ignored it during my first draft. (Right hand raised, left hand on my thesaurus) On my rewrite, I promise to be more aware of the physical constraints of my world, and characters will not travel vast expanses of the landscape in a single day.

    There. Consider it done.


  4. Steph, I think we are all guilty of throwing our characters in at the deep end. I've learned the benefits of paying at least a little attention to the context. It often doesn't take much, just a few moments' thought to give me confidence that the premise is workable. My motivation is that I'm lazy. I don't like having to redo stuff later on ;)

    Good example, David. I'm inclined to think that you might actually get away with that one. After all, we don't generally stare in one direction while we're talking, so I'd assume she just glanced over her shoulder. However I think you opened up another consistency question - that of continuity. Right now I don't know of any tools to help there. Any offers?

    Pardon granted, Andrew. I believe you :D

  5. I'm getting ready to diagram parts of my novel for the first time. Helpful post!

  6. As a reader, not a writer, I find this very interesting. I suppose we take a lot for granted when reading. It's not like cinema where moments of disconuity and paradoxes in the script stand out. There is a kind of 'suspension of disbeleif' while reading and we take the author's word for so much.
    I wonder (just mischief-making really!) if an author can go too far with a metaphorical sliderule in a creative work?
    Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

  7. Thanks Tana, and good luck. Just remember the most important rule of all - if it ain't useful, don't use it :)

    Interesting thought Bazza. I guess visual paradoxes like I talk about here just aren't a problem in a visual medium like cinema, and I wouldn't advocate going too far with pernickity details unless you happen to be the kind of writer (like me) who has trouble winging it without first sorting out those pesky details. After all, the average reader isn't likely to start charting your setting to uncover inconsistencies.

    But I think this kind of groundwork does show through in the confidence with which you talk about your setting. Even if you don't introduce glaring paradoxes I think many readers can sense whether or not you've done your homework. It shows in the writing.


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