Ekphrasis is a term which denotes writing describing a visual piece of art. In our digital world, ekprasis gets complicated as we ask the question: How do we describe the digital?
The thought came to me while reading Tim Lebbon’s The Silence. In the story of a family fleeing to Scotland to escape the craze caused by a plague of carnivorous creatures that hunt by sound, the characters are constantly checking their smart phones and tablets for updates. Each chapter begins with a piece of news or media (such as a YouTube video) pulled from the book’s crisis and relayed to us via text. With electronic literature developing every day, soon we will be able to simply attach these videos and sound clips, but for now we come back to the original question. How do we write about YouTube videos in text? How do we convey to readers what is happening on the ever-present screens of our characters? What rules come into play?
Well, I’ve been thinking about this for a while and here are my thoughts…
Just like the family in The Silence can’t escape the horde of ravenous monsters, authors can’t escape the need for digital ekphrasis, except maybe those writing historical fiction. Often, while working on my own pieces set in present day, workshop partners will ask why the main character doesn’t just whip out her phone. Though it would be nice to sometimes pretend smartphones and the constant bombardment of information from the internet don’t exist, they have become permanent fixtures in our world and excluding them borders on fantasy. (What a strange thought that it is more fictitious to omit technology than to embrace it.)
And this applies to most genres. For example, in a book that is quite different from The Silence, Sarah Dessen’s young adult drama Once and For All, the main character describes her long-distance relationship and the trauma of trying to get into contact with her boyfriend as his school is overrun by an active shooter. Television, cell phones, radio, internet. Authors need to practice incorporating technology in their work with grace.
Avoid brand names.
“To Google” has become a verb in our modern lexicon. Facebook. Twitter. YouTube. They’re all as common to us as a toaster, a sofa, a bathtub. However, as an editor, I believe that technology brands should be treated just as any other name brand would be in writing.
I always caution my authors to avoid using name brands for several reason. Brands have different connotations for everyone, and it can be hard to control what the brand is supposed to mean to your reader. This is especially true in the fast-paced and ever-volatile world of technology. I always suggest authors use a fake brand name they’ve come up with (“KnowledgeNet” instead of Wikipedia, for example) or to use a basic descriptor (ie “coffee shop chain” for Starbucks). Doing so allows authors to convey to readers what they understand the brand to be without taking any risks. The same should apply for digital tech. This comes not only with the brand which we interact with through technology (YouTube, Twitter, etc) but for the technology we use for these interactions (iPhones, Kindles, Fitbit).
Get a second pair of eyes.
Everyone has a different relationship with technology. Someone who spends hours scrolling through Tumblr is going to have a very different digital experience than those who operate mainly through Facebook. When writing a piece which includes a digital ekphrasis, make sure you find a second pair of eyes to make sure what you’ve described makes sense. It’s especially helpful if this reader is part of your target audience since a man in his fifties isn’t going to give you the best insight about a YA novel for the Patrick Henry High School graduating class of 2018.
Grab it by the wires. Take Control.
Authors need to have total control over their digital ekprasis. Just like any other moment in our writing, we have to think about the purpose. If the purpose of the character’s interaction with the technology is to find a news video about monsters ravaging Russia in search of human flesh, we don’t need to know about how long the video takes to buffer or that there is a pop-up add. Or maybe we do in order to delay the information the audience is waiting for. Either way, the point it to take control. Only include necessary details that work in your favor.
Also, control the level of immersion and perspective. Do you just want to convey a news story on social media as if it were happening in front of the character, or is it more important to keep more distance and show the character’s interaction.
Don’t forget about concrete sensory details. Even though the tangibility of the world viewed through a screen is limited, there are still ways to include the soil in which all creative writing flows. Get creative. What details come from characters interaction with technology? The smell of ozone, the eerie blue lights, the cold screen? What details can be extrapolated through the screen? Does the newscaster’s perfect makeup sweat off? What is the audio like? What smells can the character imagine?
Digital technology is here to stay. And writers need to embrace it. But every story is different, as long as an author is conscious of its integration and takes control of technology in their piece, digital ekprasis can easily be conquered.