For writers and readers, the devil is not in the details, the world is. For far too long I have allowed myself to believe something I heard repeatedly but never questioned; that being, too many details in writing was the mark of an amateur. They just weren’t needed. They killed the story I was told. They were boring, just a fill factor. What a surprise I had when I read Chapter Three - Details, Details in Alice LaPlante’s classic: The Making of a Story.
An unexamined belief is a guarantee of limitation. The notions we accept without investigating are invariably those that trip us up and hold us back. I accepted that details were something that should be avoided, stick to the big picture I was told and then march your characters into that and hope the reader makes that often serpentine journey with you. But now I see how where you start each story is so significant. Do you start with the big picture – the noble truths, the campaign, the issue that drives the story and move to the specifics or do you begin with the specifics and then expand? If you do the latter, details are your major tools.
So do we write:
With the beginning of World War II, Jeffrey Tomes, who had always wanted to be a soldier, was secretly celebrating that his dream was about to come true.
Or do we write:
Jeffery was curled in a half circle on his bed completely absorbed in a comic book he’d found as part of someone’s weekly garbage set out in an alley he used as a short cut to school. When he spotted a comic book on the top, he dug feverishly through the box, rationalizing his lateness for school against the prospect of finding one of his favorites. Three-quarters of the way down, there it was. A Soldier of Fortune comic. What a find. Now on his bed, he licked the index finger on his left hand and stuck it on the page corner insuring it turned without hesitation. For once the story started to roll out, Jeffrey wanted nothing to stop it.
From the details, emerge the story. From the details, emerge the characters. The details, like an old Biblical genealogy, beget images and images deftly rendered beget familiarity and familiarity is how a reader inserts himself into the developing story and brings with him a palette of emotions that assures reality. The writer’s role is to get that process started with every ounce of creativity he or she can engender.
But the message didn’t hit with its full punch until LaPlante offered a writing exercise from John Gardner’s, The Art of Fiction. Here is that writing exercise for you to experience first-hand what stands revealed when you are forced to use only detail to create an image which in its own way tells the story of a particular moment. Give it go. Here are the instructions:
Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war or death. Do not mention the man who does the seeing. The result should be a powerful and disturbing image, a faithful description of some apparently real barn, but one from which the reader gets a sense of the father’s emotion; though exactly what that emotion is he may not be able to pin down.
If you are a writer, this exercise is definitely worth your time and effort, for if your experience is anything like mine, you will feel like you have learned something that you could never quite put your finger on before - what it is that master novelists are doing in their writing that makes it so compelling.
If you would like to read my attempt at this exercise, click here.