details in writing

Detail or Distraction: The Details Please, Part II

Close your eyes and see the beauty.

Hold it in your mind. Note every detail and every sensation in response to every detail. Now recast it on the page and never—never again—tell us it was beautiful.

Never again write She was beautiful… he was beautiful… the moment was beautiful. Recreate the experience for us. Show us the beauty.

It’s in the eye of the beholder, remember? A beautiful day looks different to a farmer trying to survive a drought than to a beachgoer from Nebraska or a skier in the Alps. Some people go gaga for blond hair, others prefer dark skin, dark eyes. Beauty to a member of the Kayan Lahwi tribe isn’t necessarily beauty in the eyes of a Dubai socialite. A punk rocker might have different taste than a preacher. Beauty comes in jelly-belly and scrawny, hulking and petite, in qualities not visible to the eye, in qualities that defy the eye, and always, in qualities specific to the individual’s eye.

Beauty… beautiful… reveal nothing. They indicate some sort of appeal, but deduct the effect of categorical telling that shook the reader from the spell and you end up with zero.

Is it difficult to show beauty? Hell, yes. If it was as simple as writing Her beauty took my breath away, every person from third grade on up would be a writer, and yet no one would have an itch to put one word in ink. The lure of art is the opportunity to express one’s take on the world. It’s the notion of capturing beauty, of conveying an intimate encounter with beauty that motivates the writer. It’s the idea of inhabiting the minds of others with life as only you can portray it.

Natalie Clifford—

There are intangible realities which float near us, formless and without words; realities which no one has thought out, and which are excluded for lack of interpreters.

Beauty and beautiful are abstract words that register like dictionary entries, giving readers a label instead of showing readers an example.

The same applies to any label, words like—lazy, energetic, slow, fast, happy, sad, serene, anxious, evil, young, old, timid, bold, horrified, terrified, annoyed, irate, ugly, intelligent, stupid, suave, discontent, selfish, intimidating, hopeful, doubtful, stubborn, capricious, sloppy, etcetera, etcetera. The list is endless.

Don’t mistake labels for detail. The word wealthy, for example, says wealthy. We assume someone has money. How much, we don’t know. It doesn’t show wealth. The frame in the film playing in readers’ minds flashes the word WEALTHY, and their eyes move to the next frame. Here’s where you either comprehend or fail to grasp the authority of writing that shows. Yes, readers understand what the writer told them, but understanding what the writer told them isn’t enough. The writer needs to engage readers, entertain readers, and beat the competition vying for their attention. Every frame needs an image.

J.R.R. Tolkien—

[The writer] makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from the outside.

Tolkien is referring to fantasy writing in the above quote, alerting us to the consistency required of the writer to maintain the reader’s belief. The phenomenon he illustrates pertains to all genres of fiction, as well as to nonfiction, and to any number of ways the writer can break the spell. The illusion cast on the page by words is fragile, in that the wrong word can shatter it.

Imagine having achieved the magic with what you’ve written. The film is scrolling through your readers’ minds—they’re in the Secondary World. Then, an oversight, a blip in your attention. Here it comes, a stark white frame with a word in black. The label slaps readers awake, and the spell disintegrates. It’s just words, they’re reminded. Disbelief then turns to you. She’s going to do this again. You’ve betrayed their trust. You lost your readers.

But… Over one word? One word is all it takes. That’s the nature of magic. Let them see you pull the strings and it’s over.

Is it a concept or an example of the concept? That is the question.

Envision what you’re trying to say as you write. Put yourself in the vision. How does it make you feel? What causes you to feel that way? Then paint the experience with words. It might take a paragraph, a sentence, a phrase. Capture the epiphany. By that, I mean to surprise yourself with what you write. Capture an image of beauty or wealth or whatever in terms that never occurred to you. If you need to just write to get your ideas on paper, then just write. Then come back and read through your work asking yourself: Is this a label or an image, an example that shows a unique portrayal of the label?

LABEL

EXAMPLE

Information/ Telling

Demonstration/ Showing

Intellectual

Sensual (through the five senses)

Cerebral

Visceral

Concept/ Idea/ Thought

Tangible action or property

Remote

Immediate

Categorical

Detail

Universal

Individual

General, vague

Specific, vivid

Subjective

Absolute

Readers understand.

Readers relate.

Labels are counterfeit, distraction masquerading as detail. Examples are eye-openers that penetrate the reader.

THE NAME OF THE GAME IS EMOTION

All writing, regardless of subject or style, is about evoking a response in readers—causing them to feel something.

The husband says, “I’m leaving,” and gets into his car. One wife’s anger amounts to a single syllable—“Fine.” Another wife’s anger has her on the car’s hood, spewing expletives and punching her foot through the windshield. Among infinite ways to act in anger, you tell us, “She was angry.” How would you like us to interpret her anger? Do you think knowledge of it will hold our interest and make us care? We need to experience what her anger means. That requires you to put us in her skin, as well as in her husband’s skin. We can’t identify with either of them if we don’t witness the exchange, and if we can’t identify with them, we won’t have an emotional response. Show us anger. Show us two individuals as anger takes over, or threatens to take over.

If you give us emotion, we feel. If you tell us emotion, we numb.

Among all the labels that could slip into your work, the worst—call it a cardinal sin of writing—is telling us how a person feels. If a word names an emotion, delete it. If what remains fails to show the emotion, rewrite the sentence.

Delete any form of the emotional label—noun, adjective, adverb.

  • His anger rose.
  • His angry mood, tone, posture, etc.
  • He [verb] angrily.

Examples of Emotion Naming

patience, patient, patiently

eagerness, eager, eagerly

clumsiness, clumsy, clumsily

anxiety, anxious, anxiously

arrogance, arrogant, arrogantly

confusion, confused, confusingly

fear, fearful, fearfully

shame, shameful, shamefully

love, loving, lovingly

kindness, kind, kindly

caution, cautious, cautiously

pity, pitiful, pitifully

awkwardness, awkward, awkwardly

respect, respectful, respectfully

sleepiness, sleepy, sleepily

C.S. Lewis—

You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, ‘Please will you do the job for me.’

Putting us in an emotional scene taps into our emotional reservoirs. The writer pulls from our memory, and the scene’s emotion is compounded by a revival of our experience with that emotion. Words on a page become personal, meaningful.

  • Don’t tell us He set down the book in anger. Show us anger as he slams down the book and kicks over the chair. Show us the knot in his jaw as he clamps his mouth shut and turns red in the face.
  • Don’t tell us Bill could tell Larry felt happy when the board complimented his work. Show us what Bill saw. Maybe Larry’s posture rose. Maybe Bill saw the smile Larry tried to conceal.
  • Instead of saying someone feels sad, capture the pain in his face, in his posture and movements. Show his perspective on the world. Show him disheveled or withdrawn.
  • Instead of saying someone feels inferior, show him sitting alone in the last row of an auditorium.
  • If someone is arrogant, show him boasting and belittling others. Show his sense of entitlement.
  • Instead of saying someone is worried, show us how he wears his anxiety. Maybe he paces, watches the clock, and picks at the palm of his hand.
  • If you want us to feel empathy for someone who feels sick, remind us of what it feels like. Maybe a trowel claws at his intestines. Maybe he awakes drenched in sweat with the corners of the room swimming at edges of his vision. Maybe he can’t lift his head from the pillow without vomiting.

Emotions reveal themselves in behaviors as numerous as the human race. Reach for an action that isn’t cliché, something we haven’t read a thousand times. Choose a behavior that characterizes this individual. Stereotypes have no place on the page. To project stereotypes to the reading public is a disservice to society. Do anything but straight out name the emotion.

Nietzsche—

The more abstract the truth you wish to teach, the more you have to seduce the senses to it.

On the page, as in life—that’s the writer’s mandate. We write to illuminate the mysteries of the human condition. Our complexity, in life, eludes labels. Labels distort humanity and reduce the individual to a class of caricature.

THE EMPTY, EMPHATIC SUPERLATIVE

Awful, awesome, marvelous, fabulous, amazing, outstanding, incredible, magnificent, great, terrible, enormous, best, exemplary—what do you see? A lot of nothing. Drama with… well, without the drama.

Mark Twain―

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.

Think of superlatives as emotional outbursts on the writer’s part. They’re like shouting, Wow, look at that! You might as well substitute damn, as Mark Twain suggested, or Wow, look at that! for all the detail superlatives provide.

He timed his visit to the kielbasa capitol of the world so he could attend the festival. And there it sat, the event’s showpiece—a tremendous kielbasa, unlike anything he had ever seen before.

Where’s the beef? Readers still haven’t seen what he had never seen. Tremendous kielbasa reveals no more than Holy polka, look at that kielbasa.

Superlatives are hyperbolic, balloons inflated to thin membranes that threaten to burst but never do. You want words with density that pull readers into the page. Replace the ill-defined with detail.

And there it sat, Chicopee, Massachusetts’s claim to fame. The twenty-five-foot kielbasa weighed 100 pounds and required four men to hoist it onto the table where fair-goers could taste the overstuffed anaconda for a buck.

If something is tremendous, outrageous, exceptional, or really super-duper sensational, we want to see it.

C.S. Lewis—

Don’t say it was delightful; make us say delightful.

We cry, we laugh, we express our passion to our intimate others without censor. Our bodies mirror our emotions, and superlatives fly from our lips. On the page, though, to replicate the delight of life, we must censor ourselves. Our readers don’t have a visual advantage, among other things, and we must provide it.

The massacre killed all but one, who now stood before the massive pile of bodies.

How massive is massive? Use context to show what you’re trying to say. Maybe The row of bodies layered three deep and spanned the length of road between the two villages. Or maybe The bodies lay like cordwood stacked higher than his father stood, if his father had survived to stand beside him.

Superlatives, like any label, give readers an inkling of an idea. Good writing, readable writing, fills every frame with an image.

For More on Detail in Writing…
Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist