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January, 2008

Losing Patience

Devilish Details
When Minutiae Makes a Difference
By  Joyce Faulkner

Details are useful for defining plot, scenes, characters, and help the reader visualize.
When I was a kid, I loved crayons – the more colours, the better. My Thanksgiving turkey drawings were brilliant waxy masterpieces that burned with the fire of my youthful imagination.

"What's that?" Sister Mary Lucille pointed to a tiny splash of purple on a slender turkey toe.

"A bruise."

"Why does your turkey have a bruise on his foot?"

"'Cause he stubbed it on the roller skates that the rooster left on the backdoor step."

"Oh," she said.

Little things can mean a lot to a good story.

Now that I am a full-fledged writer, I employ the same devices that I used in my fledgling purple-turkey-toe days. Managing to tell a story while adhering to space constraints, stylistic requirements, and standard grammatical conventions can be challenging – to which anyone who writes sonnets can attest. We all tackle the problem differently based on our perspectives, goals, and personal writing preferences.

I create a picture in my head – and then break it into the tiniest of pieces. In my imagination, I examine each element – turning it this way and that, noting its color, shape, and relationship to the overall portrait I intend to paint. Some parts are crucial – others are clutter. Some bring color, context, and continuity to otherwise dull exposition. Others detract from the core message. Sometimes I ponder the possibilities for a long time. It's like working a 3-D puzzle – only there may be any number of plausible solutions. I move the bits around – exchanging the foreground and background. Then, suddenly, my book appears and I am ready to write.

As I compose my story, I assemble the new mosaic from the shards of my first concept – focusing on the pertinent parts and setting aside those that do not add value to the project. Another writer might choose different pieces. Still another might place higher value on some issues than I do. Thousands of pictures could be created with the same source materials. The outcome is dependent upon the author's use of detail.

If a writer's purpose is to define the physical setting of a scene, small items like the position of a window with respect to the sun – or whether or not a sofa is stained can help the reader picture the place where the characters will interact. How much detail to include in creating the stage for a story depends on the plot, personal style, and how much space is available. For example, imagine a dark library filled with titles like, The Boston Strangler, The Marquise De Sade Versus The Modern Serial Killer, or When Harry Slashed Sally. Suppose there is a fat rope fashioned into a noose laying on a window seat and a shotgun is propped up against a chair. These details create a sense of foreboding. The reader will begin drawing inferences about what might be about to happen before the author introduces a single character.

Details are useful for defining the plot. Giving the main character a broken index finger might impact his ability to pull a trigger properly so that at the moment of truth, he chooses to protect himself by dropping a net over his attacker.

Details can help the reader get to know characters too. What would Scarlett be without her green eyes and nineteen-inch waist? Knowing that the Scarecrow is afraid of fire makes a lot of sense if I know he is made out of straw.

Details help paint the back-story also. When did Harry meet Sally? Noah’s mother used to peel an apple in one long strip in Sleepless In Seattle. The men in The Dirty Dozen were criminals – some were guiltier than others though, so the crimes that they committed were pertinent to the outcome of the movie.

Details allow authors to engage their readers' senses. Just mentioning Chanel #5 or Lysol brings olfactory memories to mind. In the movie, Michael, the characters say that the archangel smells like baking cookies. So we all know the same thing about Michael – he has a heavenly scent. The word "tiramisu" makes the mouth water, "ammonia" makes the eyes burn. Describing a woman's soft lips or a man's hard bicep suggests touch.

Details may be used to establish relationships between characters, rooms, stories, and other elements within your story. For example, In Sleepless In Seattle, when Annie peels an apple in one long piece, we know that she does it the same way that Noah's mother did, which in turn tells us that there will be a bond between them.

When preparing to write a book, much of my research focuses on finding the details that will make my story authentic. I take photos, draw maps, and sketch chase scenes. I look for artifacts that will add to the story – like the rare stamps in Charade or the lost ark in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

This is especially important for historical fiction, but it enriches other kinds of work too. Oh, Brother! Where Art Thou? is an updated retelling of the epic poem – Ulysses. Throughout the movie, small details clue the audience into who the characters represent – John Goodman who plays the Cyclops wears a patch over one eye; Ulysses and his men encounter a blind soothsayer on a railcar and hear about the many "wonderments" they will encounter – like a cow standing on a barn. At the climax of the film, all those predictions come to pass, including a cow on top of a floating barn. The research that went into this movie must have been extensive.

With plays or movies, background details are visual and can be emphasized by the movements of the characters or the focus of the camera. However, with novels and short stories, detail must be delivered through action, descriptive narrative, dialog, or internal monologue.

As important as detail is to a good story, inexperienced authors tend to overuse it. The colour of a character's eyes may or may not be important. I once sat through a reading where the writer spent three pages describing five different characters. Because there was no point to the narrative, it got old fast and I wasn't the only one in the audience who was yawning. Telling me that the colour of blood is red doesn't enlighten me. However, Mr. Spock's green blood is an important story element.

You know you have unnecessary detail when:

  • It doesn’t move the story forward
  • It's repetitive
  • It creates extraneous text with no point

I prefer to have my characters reveal details about themselves and others through their actions and reactions. I also like to have them drop important clues in seemingly casual conversation. That a car is blue is only important if I need to differentiate it from other non-blue ones for some reason – like during a chase scene.

Knowing which details to use and how to deliver them can make or break your story. Would Oz be the same without the yellow brick road? Does it make a difference that Darth Vader wears a funky black helmet? Is the bruise on the turkey's toe important? Or is that little splash of purple simply a broken crayon smear?

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Joyce Faulkner is the author of Losing Patience (Red Engine Press, 2004) and In the Shadow of Suribachi (Red Engine Press, 2005), winner of the Military Writers Society of America Gold Medal award for historical fiction for 2006.

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