Monday, August 1, 2011

Dictionary of Fictional Techniques: Proxy Detailing

The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques is a running feature here at the Ape in which I observe, name, and discuss heretofore uncategorized (at least to my knowledge) literary devices. For a list of previous entries, please scroll to the bottom of this post.

Proxy Detailing:
Giving the particular name, brand, or style of an object to give it specificity without actually describing it.

"Two days after his car--an '85 Chrysler LeBaron with leather seats and all-power accessories--vanished from the driveway, Warren Ziller crept past the expensive homes of his neighbors, trying to match his dog's limp."
                           ---from A Model Home by Eric Puchner

This is a particular pet peeve of mine, but I'll try to keep my discussion here somewhat reasonable. Proxy detailing seems to me a rather recent phenomenon (and by recent, I mean the last several decades) as advertising and brand recognition have allowed it to be at all useful.

The strength of this technique is fairly plain: if you tell the reader exactly what the car/object is, then they have a ready image of it. It is as specific as you can really be, without having to describe what the object is.

The weaknesses, though, are considerable. First, if your reader is not already familiar with the brand/object, it is quite a bit more frustrating for them than just saying "car." For example, I have no idea what an '85 Chrysler LeBaron looks like, so rather than brining me closer to the object, this proxy detailing actually creates more distance than just "car" would, as I am now aware that there is a gap in the information intended and the information received.

Another weakness of proxy detailing is that it shortcuts one of the things we ask literature to do, namely, to help us see the familiar in a new light. If I do indeed have a sufficient knowledge of an '85 Chrysler LeBaron to form an image of it, it is my image that is being formed, unaltered and unestranged by the author's artistic vision.

All entries in The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques are original to The Reading Ape, unless otherwise cited. (This means that they aren’t ‘real words,’ so don’t use them in your freshman comp essay)

Previous entries in The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques:


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  1. I'm just reading Steven King's On Writing and says pretty much the same thing. Descriptions should 'begin with the author and end with the reader'. He's a big proponent of just getting on with the story. Amen, I say.

  2. Seems like Chrysler LeBaron convertibles capture an inordinate amount of placement in fiction.  Is it because of the irony that no other make has better done to "convertible" what "shmetterling" does to "butterfly".

  3. Butterfly. From a joke: An Englishman was talking to his friends about how beautiful the English language is. He said, "Just listen to this: 'butterfly'." The Frenchman scoffed, "That is nothing, compared to 'papillon'." And the German asked, "And what is wrong with 'schmetterling'?"

  4. This technique also can reveal a lot about backgrounds, of the author and the reader.  If you're from a different social class, culture, religious group, nationality, things that I might assume you would immediately be able to picture you might actually have no idea what I'm talking about.

  5. I'm not a big fan of proxy detailing either (although before now I didn't have a name for it so thanks) as I find a lot of them are culturally and nationally based and as an international reader most of them have no reference base for me whatsoever. 

  6. When I come across this device and brand names are included in the description, I always wonder if it's product placement.

  7. I'm not sure what the issue is, especially with this example. Often lesser writers will use brand names as a shorthand for their own biases, trying to write with a sarcasm that other readers don't get; however in this example it shows something about the character: He buys second-tier luxury items, a concept hard to get across without using specific examples. Also, he goes beyond just the make and model, and tells us it has leather seats and all-power accessories, meaning not only did he get a second-rate luxury item, he splurged on a few frills. And now it's gone, for some reason. 

    On the negative side, you are correct: I have no idea what year this story takes place in. If it's 1986, then this guy just lost a relatively new car; if it's 2000, he's out a junker. 

    There are more problems in this sentence than the proxy detailing, I'm afraid. I'm more intrigued by the weirdness of the last clause, 'trying to match his dog's limp.' What does he mean by match? Imitate? Or keep pace with? How does he creep and match a limp at the same time? And what does it have to do with his lost car? 

  8. Stephen King would never hesitate to name the make and model of any car at any time. 

  9. The problem is the granular knowledge you need of mid-80s American automobiles for this detail to mean anything to you. If you are already familiar, it is quite specific. If you are not, it is worse than non-specific, as it creates an awareness in the reader that they are missing out on some intended detail.

  10. Understood. It's a payoff problem, and I suspect good writers will do a cost/benefit analysis before naming things. To put myself in his head, I'd wager that he was thinking: People who know, will know, and they'll nod their heads and get it. Those who don't, he's hoping the name - LeBaron - is suggestive enough of pseudo luxury and middle class desire that they'll get a part of the idea anyway. But I guess he missed in your case.