Sunday, February 14, 2010

Details- of thee I sing

I've been thinking about details lately- and believe me, it takes a lot out of me. I am not a detail-oriented person.

However, I've learned how details make or break my writing. When I started writing, I thought deluging the reader with details would pull her into my story. As you all know, though, a flood of detail often requires the reader to wade through dense paragraphs, trying to figure out what they should attend to. Too many detail dumps and the reader will skip the page or put the book down entirely.

What, then, makes details sing? Singing details (aside from their amazing vocal abilities) do several things:

1. They reveal emotional topography as well as the physical environment.

Can I just go to one of my favorites? When I was five, I saw a live performance of The King and I- with Yul Brenner. I remember the Yul's shining head, swirling skirts from the ball dance, and the fireworks as Mom and I left the theater.

It wasn't till much later as I watched the movie that I noticed the attraction between the King and Anna. It was the moment he reaches out to take her in his arms- and she pulls back.

If I were writing that scene, I could put down paragraphs of how both of them were attracted to each other. Or, I could simply describe how the previously forthright Anna pulls back when the king attempts to put his hand on her waist. It's an amazing detail.

2. They are unusual. I remember a first pages panelist telling us we must describe something the reader doesn't expect. You could spend yourself describing a loud Marine sergeant as he greets rookies with paint-peeling language. But guess what? We expect Marine sergeants to do that. So, no matter how well you describe it, the readers won't care. You wasted space showing them something they've already seen. We need to look for the details that make our sergeants different from all the other guys yelling at the recruits.

I've been revising and revising, so I've been hunting details that sing. I sit with my eyes closed a lot, scanning a scene to figure out what a reader most needs to see.

To me, attention to important details was responsible for one of the biggest jumps in my writing. I'd never thought of winnowing through all the things I could describe to find the few that I should describe. It took a lot of work to even think that way. It still does. But it has become one of my favorite parts of revision.

I'd love to know what you think. What makes a detail sing for you? How do you choose what you describe in your own work?


Brenda said...

I find this really difficult, too. One thing I've noticed that I have a tendency to do is to always describe how something is said. You know...he said softly. She said angrily. In re-reading I realize how unnecessary it is and am trying to cut it out but it's a hard habit to break! I often have to visualize the scene, especially conversations and spend a lot of time staring at the window with the pictures in my head. I like the idea of what you should describe vs. what you could describe.

Sarah said...

I've been tempted to do that recently as well, Brenda. Like you, I've spent time making sure the dialog is clear. I've also been trying to see if there's any physical tell that might show what's going on as well.

Shelley Sly said...

I love unusual details, like the sergeant example you gave. When I think about the details -- particularly character details -- that I remember in books I've read, it's usually because they're unlike what I would expect. I hope I can accomplish the same with my work.

Jennifer Major said...

Sarah - you are so right. Unusual details even if they describe a typical characteristic make our writing more interesting. Those moments when I'm drafting or editing and my description flows out with precision and originality, well, that's what keeps me writing! Good post!

Amy Tate said...

Oh I relate with this post! I once had friend tell me that I'm a get-to-the-point sort of gal. It's an area that I've really had to focus on. I'm in the process of taking each chapter of my novel and re-writing it in first person to gain more insight. Then I take those details and plug them back into third person. It has really helped me with the details.

Lisa said...

When I close my eyes, I tend to want to fall asleep, so I often act out the scene or action I'm trying to convey. I get to my feet and become the character. I become Roy and slouch into a chair. I become Annabel as I grip the stone by its chain and thrust it out in front of me. That way I can note the exact tilt of my wrist, my posture, the beating of my heart.

I'm sure this won't work for everyone, but I find when I physically engage myself I can more easily find that perfect word or phrase to describe what's in my head.

Sarah said...

Shelley, when I thought about it, I realized I'd loved the unusual details in other books as well.

Jennifer, you're so right. I recently nailed a tiny part of a scene, and it felt. so. good.

Amy, you're not the first person I know who has written in first person to find details that enrich a third person narrative. How interesting!

Lisa, I just think how funny we must look when we write. We're immobile or muttering, or acting out a scene. I love it.

Andrea Franco-Cook said...

Indeed! details can make or break a novel. It's difficult to find a balance. However,if I find myself fighting the urge to drift off or skip pages while reading/revising, then there is too much detail. So far, this method has worked for me.