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The Power of Detail

Faithful, evocative detail.”

Many years ago I did a writing course with a superb teacher. Of the many things I brought away from that course was a quote, the source and the precise wording of which I’ve lost, but it went something like this: “The purpose of writing is to bring to life the world of the characters in faithful, evocative detail.”

It’s those last three words that have stayed with me all these years — faithful, evocative detail.

I mentioned this to a friend once, and he said, “Oh, description — I always skip that stuff.” 
I often do, too, depending on the writer.
But this post is not about “writing description” — it’s about choosing the most vital and  evocative details — and making it work for you.

Take for instance, this example:

We lived near the sea, near the marshes. I remember one time when I was a small boy, it was a cold afternoon, nearing evening and I was playing alone in the churchyard, among the graves. It was a depressing place and, feeling a bit lonely and cold and frightened, I started crying.

Suddenly a man stood up from among the graves and shouted, “Hold your noise! Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”

He was a scary man, all in gray, dirty and wet and obviously cold. Dressed in ragged old clothes, he wore an iron shackle around one leg. He grabbed me by the chin.

* * * * *

Lots of detail there, but how vivid is it? Could it be improved?

Does the scene ring a bell with you?
It’s from Dickens, Great Expectations — and here’s Dickens’s version.

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”

A fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

* * * * *

Okay, it’s very wordy. It was written some 150 years ago, and these days we tend to prefer a sparser style of writing. Most writers today would probably cut a lot of that detail back, but you can’t deny the powerful effect of this passage. In fact, why don’t you try deciding what you’d keep and what you’d cut? Start by underlining or highlighting the details that seem to you to be the most powerful and evocative. 

But before you cut anything, try reading the passage aloud — many of Dickens’s readers would have heard his stories read aloud to them. His stories were first serialized in newspapers and magazines, and thousands of people who couldn’t read, let alone afford to buy books, heard them read aloud, and became devoted to his stories and characters.

He built worlds with words and details, and his worlds and characters became real to his audience. And have lived on for more than 150 years.

Read especially that last paragraph again, about the convict and tell me where you’d cut it. And yes, POV purists would mutter that a small boy would not possibly know all that detail — but as I’ve said before, its a tool, not a rule. And it’s a rule broken to magnificent effect.

The Rules of Writing

The Rules of Writing
When you first begin to write, you write with joy and energy and enthusiasm. Every sentence sings, you fall in love with your characters and your story, your world builds and the words just flow. And it’s fun — such fun.

Gradually you realize you’re serious about your writing, that it’s not just a hobby — you want to get published. So you do the sensible thing and begin studying the craft of writing. The internet is full of advice. 

And oh . . . there are so many rules you never knew about. Point of view. Adverbs — apparently they’re practically illegal! Exclamation marks are evil!  Show-don’t-tell —always. Never use ‘then’. Avoid ‘was’. The adjective is not your friend. The best dialogue tag is no tag.

Everywhere you look there are rules. And you look sadly at your writing and realize you’ve been doing it all wrong. You’ve broken so many apparently vital rules, you might as well toss your story and start again. Or give up.

The truth is, there are no rules in writing. It’s an art form, and a craft — and the only rule is, “if you can make it work, it works.” The point of all these “rules” is to alert you to some aspect of writing, the effect of which you need to understand. They’re not rules, so much as tools. Let’s look at a few.

Point of View (POV)
Loads of books —hugely successful books at that — have been published in which we pop from one character’s mind to another, back and forth at the writer’s whim. Most discussions of ‘point of view’ insist that this is bad, that you can only change point of view once in a scene, or once in a chapter. Or twice. Or some other arbitrary number.

My view of this is there’s no set number of times a point of view change is acceptable — what’s important is the effect the writer is aiming for. You do need to study point of view, and learn what it does and what it doesn’t achieve. I have an article here on my website that explains POV in more detail, for beginners and a discussion of its uses for more advanced writers.

What you need to do is learn the various ways POV can be used, and then decide on the effect you want to achieve. Experiment. Play with different approaches. Then choose.

Show, don’t tell.
This is probably the most central tenet of all writing advice. My favorite quote about this is usually attributed to Anton Chekov: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

My own view is this: if you tell someone what to think, they will subconsciously sit back and judge you as the teller, deciding whether you’re being truthful, or convincing. The story will pass before their eyes without particularly engaging them. But if you can show them good, imagination-sparking details, they will participate in the story. Their imaginations will connect with yours, and the effect of your story will be enhanced.

So show-don’t-tell is, in general,  a brilliant piece of advice.

However, there are loads of writing advice sites that take it to extremes. There is a school of advice, for instance that said you must rid your writing of all adverbs, do a search for all words ending in —ly and delete them. And replace them with show-don’t-tell.

So, instead of “That can’t be right,” he said angrily, you have something like:

“That can’t be right.” His fist clenched slowly around the glass, gripping it, white-knuckled until the crystal shattered into a thousand shards. Blood dripped through his fingers but he took no notice.

Now this is fine if you want to go in and show the depth of his emotion at this particular point, if this is a highlight moment. (That’s not an official term, btw, it’s just me talking.)

But what if it is, say, one brief sentence that’s part of an intense rapid-flow argument? If you keep showing every character’s emotions for each utterance they make, you could end up with a piece where each character speaks and then acts out his/her emotion, a little like a mime artist. And that will  slow the pace of the exchange and thus rob it of its immediacy. Too much “acting-the-emotion” can become ridiculous.

But “That can’t be right,” could carry a range of emotions — mild irritation, or wonder, or fury— and as writer, you want to show the reaction of the speaker, give a hint of the emotion felt, but without slowing the pace of the your rapid-fire exchange.

An occasional “he said angrily,” does no harm. It’s a quick way of signalling the tone of voice being used and, used sparingly, it doesn’t slow the pace.

The advice about removing adverbs is intended to make you aware of the danger of this kind of thing:

“That can’t be right,” he said angrily.
“It’s right,” she said wearily.
“Well, I don’t believe it,” he said stubbornly.
“Check it yourself,” she said crossly.

Too much of that and it just becomes silly and repetitive. So here’s the same exchange with body language/action tags. Look at the effect.

He glared at her. “That can’t be right.”
“It’s right.” She tossed the papers on the table and collapsed into her chair.
He clenched his jaw. “Well, I don’t believe it.”
She shrugged. “Check it yourself.”

How would you edit this? I’d probably cut a couple of those “action” tags. Another writer might flesh them out with more description. It all depends on the effect you want to achieve.

Another piece of advice is to use no dialogue tags, except “said”, and only where necessary — in this case to establish who is speaking first. So:—

“That can’t be right,” he said.
“It’s right.”
“Well, I don’t believe it.”
“Check it yourself.”

The trouble with that is that while the pace is kept fast and snappy, it runs the danger of becoming a “talking heads” piece, with no other context except the dialogue. Some writers like that, others don’t. There is no right way.

There is an infinite variety of choices. You, as writer, must decide what effect you want. Try playing with some alternatives, as I have here, and then make your choice. They’re tools, not rules. And balance is everything. Some things need to be shown, others are best told. The more you write and play and learn, the greater your toolbox of skills will be.

Rules are not rules — they’re examples to learn from. Learn the purpose behind them, then decide how to use that knowledge to create the effect you want.

One last point:
Don’t worry about craft-of-writing “rules” while you’re creating that first draft. Trying to follow “the rules” while you’re still learning your craft or working out your story is likely to block you or depress you. Get the story down as best you can, in all its rough and energetic glory, then consider it as your raw material, your gemstone, ready to be polished.

And don’t worry if your writing seems clunky and nowhere near the standard of the books you love so much, and which have inspired you to become a writer. We all start out as beginners, and every published writer I know, whether they’ve had dozens of books published or one, continually work on adding to their craft-of-writing knowledge and honing their storytelling skills.

Everyone is different. Read the 10 most important rules of writing as suggested by this collection of famous writers. See the common thread? You don’t? That’s because we all do it differently. And vive la différence! (She said, tossing her head defiantly as she concludes with an exclamation mark.)

The First Few Pages

Getting Started: the first few pages

There’s an awful lot of advice on the internet and in craft-of-writing books, from revered writers and craft teachers about getting the first few pages right.

And it’s pretty much all true.

But what they often forget to say is this: the first few pages of your final book are almost never the first few pages of your first draft.

If you sweat madly over your first pages, trying desperately to get it right — or worse, perfect — when all you’ve got is five pages (or fewer) of your story, it’s probably the surest way to kill your story enthusiasm. You’re likely never to get beyond a five page manuscript.

The thing is, some lucky writers get the first line, and the first few pages perfect from the very start; the rest of us have to work much harder. For me, the start of the book almost always comes hard, and I’m almost always half way through the story before I work out what I need the opening pages to achieve. Sometimes the beginning is the last thing I write. Once I know my character’s journey and how it ends, I know what I need to set up at the start.

So if you’re just starting on your first novel, or if you’re a pantser,  try just diving in to your story from wherever it starts in your mind. Know that this beginning probably won’t end up as the final opening pages — but you haven’t written enough of the story yet to know what the  start should be doing. Just write madly while your enthusiasm for the story idea is driving you, until you run out of steam. And know that this is just a first draft, so anything goes. 

You need to be free to write whatever comes to you, without thinking about the market, or craft-of-writing advice, or what readers might think. Forget the rules, just plunge in to the story. 

This is your honeymoon phase — there’s just you and your muse and characters playing under a luscious golden dreaming moon.

Writing is rewriting. 

I used to read a lot of first manuscripts (I don’t now — no time) and one thing that popped up again and again is that often, for the first three chapters or so, the writer was writing their way into the story world of the character, learning about the characters, creating the world of the story, learning and describing backstory, and falling in love with the story. But their real story actually started in chapter four.

This is NOT a bad thing — you need to do all that work in finding out who your characters are, and where the story takes place, and play with various possibilities. So go ahead and write them.

Once your story is spinning and you have the plot taking off, and you know who your people are, you have something to work with — like a potter who’s dug the clay, taken out all the stones, then processed it until it’s smooth and a rough shape has emerged. You have your raw material.

Then you can decide where the best place to start might be. A suggestion often made is to start at the point of change for the main character — where something happens to cause him or her to take action of some kind, for their life to have to change.

Think about your story and work out what you need to set up. Considering some of the following:

a) What’s the best, most effective and interesting way readers could meet your main character(s)? 

b) What do you want to show about your character(s)? What first impression do you want readers to get of them?

c) What story questions or intrigue do you want to plant in your reader’s mind?

So don’t sweat the first few pages  or that brilliant first line — just write. Some writers refer to their early draft as the discovery draft. That comes first. Crafting a brilliant opening comes later, in some case, much later.