Saturday, August 4, 2012

Details, Details, Details

Some writers whose work you examine seem to have the ability to describe persons, places, things, even ideas with a clarity and freshness that stuns you.  Theodore Sturgeon, a gifted science fiction writer, comes to mind as a lyrical source of description, without in any way sacrificing story.  His descriptions seemed so much a part of the story that, after repeated rereading of his work, you could not see where the line was drawn.  Sturgeon also had the ability to describe the way things worked, say a pair of pliers, or a can opener, in ways that made implements and tools seem replete with human traits and quirks.

This is only one example.  The elements of story, in so many ways fragile if looked at too closely under the microscope of investigation, seem to fall by the wayside if they are buried in too much detail. 

You can’t ask the question in any way hopeful of a one-size-fits-all answer.  At what point do the details of description bog the story to the level where it becomes unreadable.  To state the question from another perspective, how many details does a story require before you discard your awareness that it is a contrivance, then begin to participate within it?

Some descriptions of dishes, in particular entrees, on menus provide interesting collateral discussion.  Knowing the ingredients in a particular dish may or may not bring you to the point of salivation, nudging you to your choice of, say, the sea bass over the lamb shank.  Your own choice of entree this very night had more to do with the spinach, offered as a side dish, than the wild Alaska salmon itself.  No disrespect to the salmon, which was flaky, flavorful, and done to a grilled perfection.  Your first thought was the local cod, described as having been swimming in the channel only this morning.  But the cod did not have the spinach, and although you could have asked for a dish of spinach, you were more of a mind for less, for simplicity.

Such are the vagaries of the matter of detail.  When are the right amounts present, when are the details overabundant, when in fact do those of them that are present constitute a lack?

From students and manuscripts you’re paid to edit, you note how easy it is to be crowded away from story by too many details and yet how one word in their midst brings the essence of a fresh clam not only to mind but to the sense of memory.

Not long ago, hearing a student read a portion of a manuscript in which the narrative was expanded to include a country breakfast, you had some things to say about how the arc of the story at that point precluded the entire scene, much less the detailed menu.  Even so, some of the details from the scene stayed with you to the point where your breakfast, the next morning, was buttermilk hot cakes, doused with maple syrup.

Your best answer is to immerse yourself in the character who is the narrator of a scene, focusing on the things that character would notice and to what degree. 

The eye for the detail is not your own (although in the most basic sense, yes, of course it is) but the eye of the character, based on all you know and understand of the character.

What makes a place real for a character?  What detail irritates the character?  What quality in another character does the narrator find offensive or at least distasteful?  No fair saying Jim found Fred’s gum chewing distasteful.  True, that is judgmental, but it is your judgment or your assessment rather than the reader’s witnessing the fact of Fred’s gum chewing causing Jim discomfort.

As you assemble these observations, you begin to see how it is that a sense of characters—any characters—being lumped into a scene together depends on details of accommodation.  Jim may find Fred’s gum chewing distasteful, but Fred has a knack for keeping computers at peak performance that makes Jim put up with the distaste.

Yet another way of expressing this aspect of detail is to say that within your parameters for the ideal story, there is more going on at a sub-story level than meets the eye, having an effect on the way characters speak, act, and appear.

Similar things, of course, take place where menus are concerned and where reality is concerned.  These details, these elements have an enormous effect on us at some subterranean level, whether we become aware of them or not.

When focusing on story, either in the reading of it or the attempt to capture it on the page, we do not wish to be bombarded with details, but we do wish to know they are there, struggling to get out and work their mischief.

Back to Sturgeon for a moment.  Perhaps there’s a reversal of formula there.  Treat the mechanical as though with human traits.  Treat the human as though with mechanical or animal traits.  No disrespect or demotion to animals intended.

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