Monday, February 19, 2007

Bobby's First Long Pants

If there is one time when a male man is supremely self-satisfied and complacent, it is when he crawls into his first pair of long pants and stalks proudly around, with just the suggestion of a smirk on his manly features.

Oh that is a time to rejoice and be glad. It means more even than the first shave. That suit! Those cuffs on the trousers! No more knickerbockers! "But when I become a man!--" Note how he sticks out his chest and thrusts his hands in his pockets, the admired of all beholders, the observed of all observers, the cynosure of every eye.

(Montgomery Ward & Co. advertisement from The Fra, May 1914, published by the Roycrofters.)

* * * * *

I love old ads, especially the ones before the wide reach of electricity. They unfold so slowly, deliberately. They revel in language and literary structure, very different than the 12-year-old education level targeted by advertisers today.

Can you imagine the story of Bobby and his first pair of pants being used for something like a Macy's ad in this month's New Yorker?

So what's changed?

Writing reflects how we think, how we perceive, and our communication expectations are very different today. We are hit with images and color and speed. Information and emotion spins directly into our brains.

Radio, television, and films have altered the way we think.

As writers, we can't underestimate how much these modes of communication affect our approach to storytelling. Why is show, not tell such a mantra? Because media forms like film have made the membrane between reality and fantasy very thin. Now, with virtual reality experiences adding motion and touch and even scent to the experience, it's getting even thinner.

Showing draws in the events of your story tighter, like you're hovering close enough to touch. Showing is like looking through clear glass. If you don't bump your nose on the pane, you forget it's even there.

But each time you drop a filter between the reader and the action, the experience loses some vibrancy and immediacy. What kinds of filters am I talking about? Narrating. Summarizing plot, emotions, and motivations. Packaged exposition. All of these "filters" distort the fictional reality.

Does that mean you can never use a literary filter? No, they can be important and effective tools. However, they should be carefully and purposefully chosen for effect. They should not become automatic. They should not become the rule rather than the exception.

(Pssst! Bobby! You do look bitchin' in those pants, my man.)


Susan Abraham said...

Really, Jason? :-) This referring to the long pants?
I love the picture.
My favourite American illustrator is Norman Rockwell.
I loved his drawings of American life for the Saturday Evening Post. :-)

Susan Abraham said...

Hi again Jason,
I returned to read the second part of this post just now and to absorb your lesson in writing. This morning I was a little exhausted from my own work. I found your tips thought-provoking and as always, invaluable. Thank you. :-)

Anonymous said...

I liked reading that - you are good, I have linked you and will be back to read more. Don't read my blog whatever you do, you will not approve....

Anonymous said...

Susan, yes, although I divided the ad for easier posting, they go together! Interestingly, line drawings tend to dominate the magazine. Perhaps photographs were more expensive to reproduce.

And thanks so much for coming back and writing my thoughts on writing. :)

Mutleythedog, I may have visited you before. Perhaps I should stop by to find out for sure. ;) In any event, thanks for the link!!

Scott said...

I go back and forth on this topic, but I believe that it is people that have changed, and not by the media. I think the media is a reflection of how we think. Media is ultimate Darwinism, because if it is not used, it is lost without ceremony.

As for writing, this is much the same concept. I get bored by long narrative, but with it skillfully inserted, I will tolerate it. I don't appreciate the artsy and the fartsy. Give me some meat on the bone. While I'm getting my face messy with it, then I'll have the patience to listen. But when I'm through, you'd better give me something else to chew on.

Wilf said...

I agree, Jason, show not tell is an old but true writing rule.
I love the male-man and his manly pants - slightly different meaning in the UK makes it even funnier.

apprentice said...

I'd love you to give us what you think the modern version would read like.

Enjoy your holiday/vacation say tomato etc

Eileen said...

I love this discussion of how the ads are different.

Kevin said...

This is a complete tangent but for some reason this post made me think of the Golden Pantaloons from Baldur's Gate. Fellow video game nerds will know what the hell I'm talking about.

Anonymous said...

Scott, I agree. The state of society drives, and is reflected by, the media.

Wilf, that picture is hilarious, isn't it?

Apprentice, I think an ad like this would be reduced to pure images. Also, there would be a humor twist. Like Bobby's first pants which hang down to the crack of his you-know-what. There's a public innocence reflected in this ad that doesn't exist today.

Eileen, I think I'll scan these now and again. They're just too good.

Kevin, I don't know that one! I was a member of the early video game era. Space invaders came out when I was 11. Oh, the days of the arcade...sigh.