Monday, June 24, 2013

Details: Mustard vs. Mayonnaise

The more you think about details in a narrative, the more you begin to see them as ghostly figures in Goya etchings, haunting the story in ways you've only just begin to suspect.

Perhaps this is a generational thing since among other storytellers, you grew up among the likes of Philip K. Dick, Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft, Manly Wade Wellman, Richard Matheson, and Fritz Lieber, haunting used bookstores and mail order dealers for back issues of Weird Tales.  But an equal possibility is your arriving at an ability to put details in a physiological place.

If you start your formulation with the shifting in brain waves as one passes from the waking state into the fraught, personalized world of the sleeping state, you are ready to finish the analogy in progress with the borderline cusp between Reality and the world of equally fraught, personalized management of story.

Story is managed reality, managed dreamscape, arranged to produce feelings in readers that draw forth from them their own cusp worlds between sleep and wakefulness, between actual reality and the reality of story, presented as though real.

Sometimes--often--in the dream world, an object or its lack takes on a drugged, truth-serum force, evoking emotions of one's own.  Sometimes appearing in one's dreams without, say, shoes, or particular items of clothing will provide the equivalent of a sound track, radiating an emotion of bewilderment or embarrassment or loss.  Sometimes an item or detail in a dream will evoke intense pleasure or desire.

Details in stories convey a sense of reality, but since a significant task for story is to radiate reality, the details must be chosen because of their emotional impact on the writer or the characters, perhaps even both.  A single adjectival or adverbial attribution to a detail can set it in vibration, where it will evoke the sense of being real that is the narrative equivalent of hyper reality.  An old shoe.  A new shoe.  Even a brown shoe, or Uncle Fred's shoe sets the detail in motion.

Some stories seem to shimmer with an urgency that, on reexamination, seems numinous, near mystical without any explanation.  To this day, you recall a dream you had when you were a scant five or six, and had in recent days been given your first experience with a then frozen treat called a Popsicle, an ice pop that was nothing more than frozen, fruit-flavored water, another distinguishing feature the two wooden handles for the user to grip while working away at the confection.  

The experience was a sensual delight for you to the point where you could not wait to get the next Popsicle in reality, you were so eager, you dreamed of having one.  In your dream, you experienced the feel of your tongue against the cold, of the melting ice within your mouth, sugary, fruity red.

Most important of all, the thrill of dreaming and experiencing with vividness something you wanted.

Details evoke that same sense when you read them; you are more likely to believe, which is to say resonate with the demands and puzzle and imbalance set forth by the story.  The proper choice of details is every bit as important as the characters, their personalities, their quirks, their needs, their methods of dealing with the obstacles in their way.

John believes he loves Mary and wishes a romantic relationship with her.  Ho hum, that is until it is clear to you that, worthy though John may be, Mary's interests are elsewhere.  No more ho hum; you've been where the fictional John is.  Now you look for, you crave some detail about Mary that will cause you to have the same regard for this fictional Mary as you may have had for a real Mary.  Now the story is on, and you are in your way as much a part of it as the fictional John you are rooting for in his ardent wish to have Mary recognize him for the fine fellow he is.

Because they are small, idiosyncratic things, details must be managed with care.  They must not be allowed to seem formulaic.  If the detail is cheese, it must be of a color and smell that evokes taste or softness or its appearance as melted.  Plain, dumb, old cheese with no attributes won't do it.

A student in your writing workshop this past Saturday spoke in passing of bologna sandwiches her father made for her and how now, she prefers bologna sandwiches, if at all, with mayonnaise.  Then, it was mustard.  A day later, you had no bologna in your refrigerator, but you did have sliced turkey, which you would normally dress with mayonnaise, but today, Dijon mustard.  Also, as of this moment, you now have a packet of bologna from the Italian deli in your refrigerator.

Even were this essay slide into a discussion of the comparative virtues of mayonnaise over mustard or the reverse, the subject would still be about details, wouldn't it?


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