The Break of Dawn and Descriptive Dissonance

In a book I’m reading–Wicked Appetite, by  Janet Evanovich– I came across the following passage. 

The sky was growing brighter by the minute with the promise of sunrise…

It made me think about sunrise here on our tiny island of St. Martin, on the outskirts of the Caribbean Sea. It’s not so much that the passage has anything to do with dawn breaking on the island–it doesn’t–but it made me think about how sunrises differ depending on where in the world one is, and how important it is for writers to make the descriptions match a story’s locale.

The passage above describes dawn on the East Coast, specifically New England. It could even describe a sunrise in Los Angeles, on the West Coast. But it doesn’t agree with the way the sun comes up on St. Martin or, for example, in West Texas. Here and in the flat geography of the Texas Panhandle, there is no gradual lightening of the sky. Almost as soon as there is a glimmer of light hailing daylight the day is in full bloom–inky darkness of night to enough daylight to read by in less than ten seconds. It’s that fast.

West Texas and St. Martin have very different geographical topology. West Texas is flat as a table top, while St. Martin has rolling hills and lots of sandy beaches. While the island is mere inches above sea level, the Staked Plains of Texas are more than half a mile above it. West Texas is a day’s drive from the Gulf of Mexico (the nearest large body of water) while the waters of the Caribbean can be reached in less than a fifteen minute drive from anywhere on the island. 

Granted, the quality of emerging daylight differs between these two geographical entities, but the way daylight just happens seems about the same–probably because there is so little to get in the way of the sun’s rays in both places. Sunlight doesn’t need to negotiate mountains, forests, or other obstructions. It merely flows directly from the blazing ball as soon as the sun’s first emminations rise above the horizon. Black of night to light of day in an instant. Like a lightbulb going on in a pitch-dark room.

When I lived on the East Coast–even when I lived in Los Angeles–day emerged gradually. I don’t remember how long it took, but at least fifteen minutes elapsed between total darkness and gloomless day. There was a warning that day was about to start, as daylight walked night to the front door. Quite a difference from the explosion of light here on St. Martin.

It is important for writers to know how the day begins in the locale of their stories, particularly for a scene taking place at dawn. Often, I come across descriptive passages in books and stories that don’t quite jive with an area familiar to me. For example, earlier this year I read a book by one of my favorite authors in which he described driving between points on this island. The descriptions may have added drama to the passages, but they were so inaccurate as to make me wonder if the author had actually taken notes on the major metropolises on the island and the terrain surrounding each one. It was very disconcerting and disorienting to read these descriptive passages; in my mind, I had trouble resolving the dissonance between the text and what I know of the island from driving it regularly. I get the same type of near vertigo when a writer messes up geography or environmental “pictures” related to New Jersey or New York City–or even Los Angeles. But on this tiny island that would fit neatly, and with room to spare, within the bounds of Los Angeles County, inaccurate descriptions can disrupt a reader familiar with the area. And if one visited a location and tried to follow the writer’s trek, the tourist would get lost or disoriented.

Descriptions of things as seemingly universal as a sunrise can also disorient a reader. I suspect that the author was writing from memory, not notes; that he probably used a map that was too general or not drawn to scale (like a car rental map); or that he was getting islands mixed up. From my  slight experience with surrounding islands, I know that each one is unique but that there are great similarities among architectural structures and the layouts of towns. It is easy to mis-remember which feature belongs on which island, as there is almost a deja vu between any two islands. They were, in fact, basically colonized by the same cultures within very short time intervals (historically speaking). Thus the similarities which may be difficult to place accurately, even with photographs. 

The point is that dissonance between what a reader knows and what a writer writes can stop the reader in his or her tracks–especially someone like me, who expects a favorite writer to be as accurate as humanly possible.  Doubt is cast upon the believeability of the story, all because of a little descriptive dissonance. 


About DrEMiller

Certified Zentangle Teacher (CZT). Home: Sint Maarten. K-12 teacher for 13 years (Special Education for 10 years); Post-secondary educator since 2002; Education consulting since 1995. When teaching, held teaching certificates in K-12 special education, reading specialist; and secondary social studies. Doctorate: Educational Psychology Programmer/analyst for 10 years, including project management and training of corporate execs.
This entry was posted in The Writing Process, writing, Writing process and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Break of Dawn and Descriptive Dissonance

  1. Libby Sommer says:

    good point Ellie. food for thought.

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