Details, Details, Details
As part of my experience, providing vivid imagery and concrete details has proven to be the most evasive element of writing fiction and poetry. Their conceptions demand a high degree of imagination. Their inclusion is not necessarily vital to the drive of a story arc or to the sub-textual resonance in lines of poetry. They are hard to think up and a story or poem can get along without them, so they can be easily superseded by other elements like action or dialogue or exposition. Details are invaluable but are not required—like a Christmas tree in a living room, yea it’s a pine tree inside a house so it is a Christmas tree, but without lights and ornaments…who cares?— In short, you can complete a piece without details, but without details no piece is ever complete. The different functions of details within a piece range from obvious to a bit more obscure. Obviously, they are used to set scenery and lend a sense of atmosphere while creating a tone or mood suitable to a given scenario. Less obvious, though, may be their uses as symbols, metaphors, or correlations to the emotional states of characters. Perhaps most unassuming of all is that details and imagery function as evidence.
Imagery brings a story or poem to life. Details endow fiction with plausibility. Description increases a story’s believability (the movie Reservoir Dogs sums this concept up nicely at the part of the “commode story”). The writer can convince the reader that they were there and saw what’s being described (in their heads with their mind’s eye). But a work can become bogged down with superfluous descriptions. So it is important to be selective, adding only the details that are crucial to the overall effect that the story is trying to achieve.
The clouds hung leisurely in the calm pool of the blue sky, like massive wordless thought bubbles produced by tranquil and meditative minds blissfully uninhabited by the meddlesome discord of involuntary cognition.
Why is the sky and clouds important to the scene to come? Why the simile? Are those details important to my story?
Writers often set up scenes by describing the weather and the sky. My guess is because the sky takes up the majority of any exterior scene, an elephant in the room. But just because something is there in your scenery doesn’t mean that it is important enough to mention. If a character is set outside, the reader will likely imagine the sky without any guidance from the writer, or if a character is set in a room, the writer could probably skip mentioning that there are four walls, a ceiling, and a floor. All of those details are integral to the idea of a room, and the reader can render those things without the writer.
Here’s an example from John Steinbeck’s masterpiece “The Grapes of Wrath,” first chapter. Set during the Dustbowl and the mass diaspora of disenfranchised farmers heading westward toward California, Steinbeck’s imagery is focused and purposeful.
“In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air, a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high of the fence tops, and an automobile boiled behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.”
The imagery consists of travelers, automobiles, horses, and wagons, all on the move, kicking up plumes of dust that rise higher and higher into the air.
The word “author,” by the way, there’s a strong chance that it is phonemically related to words like “authority” and “authentic.” This leads me to believe that authorship can be characterized as commanding and genuine. An author’s authoritative command over the reader is an extremely delicate one. Readers know from the very beginning of a story that it is make-believe (I’ve been told by at least a few people that they refused to read fiction because it isn’t real, what good is a story that has been made up?). To make matters worse, should one of those blessed souls who do daringly take the plunge and occupy their valuable time with leafing through hundreds of pages of BS, they are merely an insubordinate snap-shut of the front cover from dispelling the writer’s command over them. Hence, it stands to reason that the primary objective of any sentence is to entice the reader to read the next one, like a chain smoker lighting the next cigarette with the still burning butt of the one preceding, the same goes for lines, paragraphs, and chapters. The trick is to trick the reader. The trick is not to convince the reader that what you’ve written is truth, but rather to distract the reader from the truth, that their reading fiction—this is where evidence comes in to play. Evidence, in this context, is anything that adds credibility to a work, as well as to its author.
Take murder trials, for instance. The ace-in-the-hole for the prosecution is the acquisition of the murder weapon. Through investigation and forensics and probably psychic readings, the murder weapon can be identified without ever having to find it, but that isn’t strong enough to build a case. Ideally, prosecutors want a zip-lock baggie containing a blood stained meat cleaver with lumps of gore stuck to the blade along with splotches of the defendant’s semen and carvings of his initials and social security number on the handle. This baggie, marked exhibit A, is ideal because the prosecutor can SHOW it to the judge and jury, and people believe what they see— the defendant, based on the unanimous decision reached by a jury of his peers, has been found guilty of possessing a big icky knife and in accordance with said decision, I hereby sentence the defendant to soak the knife in warm soapy water BEFORE running it through the dishwasher… and BANG goes the gavel.
Use imagery to –Evoke emotion
Correlate to the condition of characters
Create mood, tone, and atmosphere
Set time and place
Enliven your writing
Set a scene using concrete details—remember, there are five senses at your disposal so you shouldn’t limit yourself to visual details only, but use them when suitable and avoid forcing them for the sake of including them all.
First preface your scene with an explanation of its context, a single paragraph should do. Then set up a scene using imagery and details that complement the context of the story while avoiding exposition.
Pick a tone and subject and write a poem in a style of your choosing, using mostly imagery. Limit exposition.
Make sure you put this (SATWE, 12/28/13, Details) in your title.
Be sure to tag it with SATWE, Gather Writing Essential, and Details.
Then post to Gather Writing Essential, and if you are worried I may not be able to find your response then send a comment below with the link to the article you have written.
I ask that you try and make your submission by next Saturday.