Wednesday, September 06, 2006

No Bare Naked Ladies

Critics sometimes complain about time-out passages in certain novels where the clothing worn by the characters is described in minute detail even unto the last accessory.

Before anyone gets their knickers in a knot, I should point out that this apparent info-dump appears in narratives other than romance and chick-lit. And dress-talk/fashion is not just one of those gratuitous female things.

I've seen the same detail supplied in men's and other muscular fiction. Descriptions of everything from Armani to armour.
Seems when a male character indulges in description, he's a trained observer; when a female character does it, she's a superficial ding-bat - even when both may be for the purposes of advancing the plot.

Seen in terms of accessories, paragraphs about the make, caliber, magazine and weight of any piece of artillery is no more pertinent than similar specifics for a lady's purse...and not necessarily more lethal.

Shedding for the moment any conclusions about conventions, technique, and gender prejudice, just what do descriptions of clothing communicate?

An academic-flavoured blog, Teach Me Tonight, recently addressed the use of clothing in romantic fiction and made this interesting and acute observation - that clothing reflects "social status, money, sexual availability, occupation..."
Our conclusions about people based on clothing are almost unconscious.
Many English mysteries made special mention of head gear and footwear to indicate class, for example.

Tight T-shirts. Baggy pants. Fussy blouses. Baseball caps. clues.

Two modes of communication come into play when clothing is detailed.
A character may notice, lust after or disapprove of a neat behind in tight jeans, chinos, or whatever- that tells us something about the observer. The writer is also telling us something about the observeree.

While info-dumps do not generally meet with approval, don't think there is any need to strip-search your narrative to remove any mention of clothing.

Publisher's Snack: December has sold to Ellora's Cave.
Sonya has just sold to Wild Child Publishing.
I'm having trouble keeping up with these announcements.


Scott said...

I'm writing a short story now, and am using clothing to illicit revulsion in one character in relation to another. It all depends on how it is done. I hardly see how a complaint can be taken seriously.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Thanks for the mention, Bernita! :-)

On clothing -- I write both thrillers and romantic suspense, and I do occasionally use hints of clothing to help give an image of the character. I've only went into some detail on a character's outfit once, and it was because she'd deliberately chosen the ensemble for a specific purpose.

In historical fiction, I think it's nice to read some of the clothing descriptions because most of us aren't familiar with the fashions -- and a lot of historical fashions had uses other than to clothe the wearer.

Also, I love the Barenaked Ladies. Especially "Pinch Me." Great tune. :-)

Robyn said...

I've got nothing against clothing info dumps as long as they fit logically in the narrative. I think I mentioned before my dismay with the ubiquitous Regency heroine who is rushing to stop her lover and brother from dueling, so she dresses quickly in a simple, pale yellow muslin with a gathered waist that emphasizes her trim figure and creamy skin, throwing on the fawn pelisse with the matching hat. Timing is everything!

Bernita said...

Think it's a case of confusing excess with dress, Scott.

You're welcome.
Concern with fashion was a characteristic of some classes in some periods, Sonya.

Eh, Robyn!Another case of not use, but mis-use. Couldn't they have described it later when she's fainting in the beadle's arms or something?

MissWrite said...

Huge congrats to December, and again to Sonya! Way to go ladies!

Ric said...

He admired her sweater, white angora with threads of pink and baby blue. "Did you make that?"
"Yes. Do you like it?" She didn't have to ask; he hadn't taken his eyes off her breasts since she unbuttoned her coat. She had made the bustline smaller purposely even though her mother thought it inappropriate.

- from Falling Leaves

Info dumps are annoying. Not sure what they are supposed to accomplish other than to show off the author's knowledge of something I'm probably not interested in. If it shows character, such as a guy with a fashion fetish, that's fine.

But only if it shows something about the character - as in the passage above - indicates homemade clothes (possibly poor family?), shows knowledge of her own body and what she can do to show it off, shows she's not afraid to go beyond family conventions,

And of course, he's just a horny teenager.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Wow! Novels are pooping out all over. Congrats to all of the authors! is not an optional concept in Christian fiction...LOL...They all stay on! And there better be enough of them.

One of the stand out differences between secular and Christian fiction books stores is that if a christian reader is offended by something they read, they invariably take the book back to the store and get a refund!

Can you imagine doing that at Barnes and Noble!

Rick said...

Like my male lead, I'm perfectly happy to admire either a ship or a gown (and wearer); the trick is doing it concisely.

A bit combining both, though - alas! - I had to cut it:

He looked up with pleasure at the curves of the nearly completed hull in the stocks. It was fitting that ships were called "she," for they had so much in common with women. Above, both wore pennants floating gallantly on the breeze, cloth well-cut to its purpose, and stays to hold all firmly in place; below were shapely lines, now rounded, now slim and taut.

Bernita said...

Tami, I'm starting to feel like a madame!

Yep, Ric, how could anyone complain about that?
Wonder if it's partly due to to the fact that modern clothing - availability, dressing-down, etc. - is not nearly as significant in expressing character as it once was, yet the habit exists, sometimes to excess?

But does Christian fiction go into much detail about whos is wearing what, Bonnie, and draw character inferences from that choice?
I would imagine so.

You do that very well, Rick.
Were you grinning when you wrote that?

Rick said...

Of course I was! Oddly, the original passage didn't have the obvious punch line: Both could be tricky to deal with.

MissWrite said...

Nah, Bernita, it's a wonderful service to your fellow authors, and a dear pat on the back as well to your friends.

December Quinn said...

Thanks Tami, Bonnie, and Bernita!

I do like knowing what peple are wearing...within reason. I blogged a long time ago (website only) about Laurell K Hamilton and the terrible crimes against fashion she's always forcing her characters to commit. The boring detail of those crimes is always even worse (do we need to know what color the stripes on Anita's socks are, or the swoosh on her Nikes?)

I try to add a little line or two, though, about everyday clothes. And if there's a special outfit I describe it in more detail--but still vaguely enough that five years from now readers aren't going to say, "UGH how 2006". :-)

Candice Gilmer said...

Now, maybe this is me, but I find myself, the younger, or newer, the author, the worse the "info dump' dress sequence is.

Now, I could be wrong, and there could be a whole slew of experienced authors out there who do it, and I just don't read them, or I haven't been paying as much attention as I should...

But still, it seems, anyway, when dealing with critique groups and such, that I find there's more detail in the dressing the newer the writer is. Myself, I rarely detail it, unless it sets a scene, or it plays some form of contribution, though there are times when the dress is enough to set up a lot about a character:

Mordacai gritted his teeth. Kandi didn’t look any more lethal than any other human looking to get laid. She wore a bright pink shirt that tied just under her boobs and a white tank under it. Her skirt was a “school girl” plaid, in pinks, black and white, and she wore knee high white boots.

When she was in ear shot, she started speaking. “Well, lookie what we have here,” she said, patting each one on the shoulder. “Forrester and Mordacai.”

Mordacai repressed a shiver. His fangs started to come down and his body surged with the need to sink his teeth into her white-skinned neck.

Course, most Vampires dreamed of sinking their fangs into an Immortal. This one ranked high on the list simply because she dressed like a cartoon character.

(okay, I'm done rambling now... ;))

Bernita said...

Rick, I can think of others...

If I miss some, Tami, it is certainly not intentional.

A practical consideration, December!And you're welcome.

That is an acute observation, Candice and a good example of selective and effective usage. Two birds and appropriate male pov impression too.

Rick said...

Candice - if younger published authors are doing dress infodumps - and getting them past editors - I'd guess it has to do with the fashion for fashion, so to speak. The popular culture of the 70s and 80s, even the 90s, just wasn't as fashion-minded; would a movie like The Devil Wears Prada have been made ten years ago?

If you're speaking of unpublished writers, they're still in the process of learning what doesn't work.

Your passage works fine, because it's worked into the plot and the roving male eye ...

his body surged with the need to sink his teeth into her white-skinned neck


Dakota Knight said...

When it comes to getting to that 90,000-100,000 word count, sometimes a well-thought out and carefully crafted info dump can be just what an author needs.

kmfrontain said...

I'm always concerned that I should only give the most meagre clues to dress, because, having read so many of my mother's Harlequins in my youth, I didn't want to come off as an author into that genre. Then again, I've seen fantasy novels that spend loads of time on dress as well. I suppose it depends on how it's done. Some people call it setting the scene, the character being a part of it. So that puts us into "is there enough description?" or "did I just bog down the story pace?"

And congrats S.W.!

kmfrontain said...

And December! Congrats!

Sheesh. I have scatter brain today.

EA Monroe said...

Some of the old fashion hatpins make lethal weapons! Besides portraying characterization, clothing and accessories can add flashes of color and rustles of sound (sensory effects). My clothes are an accident waiting to happen.

Bernita said...

Think "carefully crafted" are the key words there, Dakota.

Think we all like to know what the characters have on, Karen, though I also am leary of too much description of apparel at any one time. Prefer the sketch, then fill in later.

And can be used for sly humour too, EA!

Rick said...

kmfrontain - I don't know what subgenre those Harlequins were, but I'd think that the "reasonable expectation" of description is different for fantasy or hist-fic than for contemporary fiction.

After all, we know generally what people wear today, so just a few key words (as in Candice's snippet) are enough for us to fill in the rest of the picture. With historical costume (let alone fantasy) we have only Hollywood memories to guide us - and a fair proportion of readers are likely curious as to what people wore.

Candice Gilmer said...

Bernita, Thank you. :)

Rick, the "newer" writers that I was thinking of at the time
are unpublished, and yes, they are still learning their craft. It just takes time and practice.

Glad you liked the passage. :)

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