Sunday, May 10, 2009

Spare me the details

details--one or more portions of a larger vision of a character, a place, system, institution, or thing; a discreet, identifying trait; pieces of a defining trait; traces of emotional elements in a story.

In order to be effective as ingredients in a story, details must have embedded in them a feeling or the power to evoke a feeling. Details are the useful adjectives and adverbs, humming about a narrative like mosquitoes on a summer afternoon, looking for a landing site. Details may also contain facts but they are best presented as though they also bore emotions, which is to say that facts presented only as empirical sources will lead to boredom. Readers want accuracy in their details but when they turn to story, the facts they are after are insights and revelations about human and animal behavior.

There is a relationship between the degree of confidence a writer has and the control with which that writer deploys details, the more confident the less the need for details. The more comfortable with the reach of the story, the less likely the writer will feel the need to defend rather than merely tell the story.

Hint: Avoid laundry lists. Use only those details that relate to the narrative point of view (as opposed to the need for the author to intervene). Each character will have thresholds of awareness, sensitivity, tolerance. A character who is a painter or photographer will have an eye for nuances of light. A musician will be more likely to not details of a voice or sound. A chef might have a nose for the subtle smells and flavors of an atmosphere. A prepubescent child will experience details of time in a different manner than a septuagenarian. As the writer "becomes" and takes on the sensitivity of his own characters, the writer will experience a sense of the right impressions and details for each character. More than any use of physical details in her portrayal of her character Patricia "Paddy" Meehan, author Denise Mina focuses on Paddy's frustrating encounters with diet, the extreme measures she sometimes takes, how she falls off the dietary wagon, and how she dresses, hopeful of effecting a camouflage.

In his novel Brooklyn, Colm Toibin allows his Irish characters a differing set of awareness than his Italian characters, allowing readers of neither ethnicity a richer vision into their respective cultures. He is similarly apt in his depiction of sports fans, and the feel of commercial and domestic settings. In her novel The Shipping News, Annie Proulx uses detail to produce the sense of cold in the Newfoundland setting with stunning effect. More to the point, neither Toibin nor Proulx over detail; each uses excellent choice in the amount and the way the detail is brought into context.

At one time--the 1940s and 50's--writers of the so-called Naturalist inclination thought to define their characters through lists of products they used, types of clothing they wore, specific foods they enjoyed or detested. For all their sincerity and devotion to their approach, their characters stood out for readers in the details of their actions and attitudes.

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