Waits and Measures

With a title like that, this could be my Eats Shoots and Leaves; pity English doesn't spell phonetically.

I am indebted, not for the first time, to Damon Courtney, for his question that I seek to answer here. It is a question that is in two parts; the first part is relatively easy to answer and provides the guideline that I call "Edit note 10: grain". The second part cuts right to the heart of the process of narration, and the process of reading—although the answer to Damon's question is more prosaic. Here's his question (hacked about a bit since it was in an email with an attachment):

[Damon says:] I showed the Prelude [to Book II of the series Dragon Bond] to a couple of friends who will be acting as beta readers on this book, and there has been some debate over a line or two. …

[Here's the passage in question - teaser for those of you who have read the first book]

The ogre chieftain’s greatsword had to be at least six feet long if it was an inch. At least it looked that big to Gortogh. It was hard to guess while it was in mid-air and swinging for his head. Also, he was sitting on the ground, and things always look bigger from the ground. Probably why the ogre looked ten feet tall himself.

Gortogh shoved with his feet and managed to roll back as the giant blade slammed into the ground, digging deeply into the impression previously occupied by his backside. He finished his roll and bounced to his feet in what would have been an impressive display of balance and grace if he hadn’t been forced to immediately stumble back another step to avoid losing his head. He steadied his feet and sized up his opponent.

The ogre chieftain was ten feet tall if he was an inch. And he was grinning a big, yellow-toothed grin as Gortogh tried to get his balance. He backed up another step and felt a shove in his back as one of the goblins ringing them in a circle pushed him back in. The ogre wasn’t even paying attention. He walked around the circle with his arms wide and his sword held high.

The [friends] think it's distracting or that it's wrong because it's not Gortogh's actual thoughts but the narrator who is not a character (or should not be at least) in the story.[end of question]

The underlined parts are the bone of contention. Measurements of any kind are, in fiction, not generally friendly to free flowing narrative, and Damon's beta-readers object to this use of measurements; I think they are right to raise the issue; I'm not sure that I agree that there is a problem*. Here's what Edit note 10 has to say:

Editorial note 10: grain

The grain of a description is the amount of detail you give. As someone who plays D&D, I am aware of the importance of small details (like load weight or distances), however I draw your attention to the following that I was given as an example some years ago:

"Eric found he could just stretch far enough to reach the key, and freedom"

The above is the rewritten sentence. Below is the original:

"Eric found that his arm was just long enough to reach across the thirty inches of cold stone floor to where the keys lay, representing freedom."

In moments of drama, less detail is more, and the phrase "just far enough" is emblematic of this.

Keeping accurate count of enemies can fall into this category. It's rather like how many bullets Harry Callaghan has left in his Magnum. The count matters to the plot.

Giving measurements of characters or locations is usually redundant.

Usually. But a Prelude (or to give it its more usual name, a prologue) can be in a different narrative style, and indeed a different narrative logic, from the main work. Damon is taking the opportunity to have some fun, experimenting with using repetition to exaggerate the size disparity between Gortogh (a goblin**) and the ogre**. Furthermore, we can consider that at least six feet long if it was an inch is a colloquial idiom, rather than a strict measure, and hence sidesteps the guideline of Edit note 10.
I will address the question of narrative consistency in my next post.
*   There are probably improvements to make; this is a beta-draft after all.
**  goblin  is a small to below average sized intelligent humanoid monster.  Ogre is usually larger or much larger.

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