This Dated Essay of the Month isn’t dated at all. In fact, I have been thinking about the proper use of detail as I prepare for a workshop that we’re doing (for professionals) with Sheila Williams of Asimov’s in mid-September. Writers often forget about detail. They get lazy, they do it wrong, or they’ve never learned it in the first place.
I wrote this essay when I was still going to a weekly workshop in Eugene. I was also editing F&SF at the time. (Note the sentence that begins, “I see a thousand openings….” That’s not hyperbole. That’s truth. I actually had a dream last night that I was reading slush again. Only when I woke up, I called it a nightmare.)
I no longer attend a weekly workshop, and I no longer edit F&SF. Those are the only two things that date this essay. Otherwise, it’s something I could have written an hour ago—or next week—or five years from now.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
For the last few weeks, I have been stressing the use of detail, although I don’t feel as if I have been explaining what I mean very well. This is a difficult point to get across in a verbal critique. So I thought a short article might be in order.
We often emphasize the difference between “real” detail and “fake” detail. Fake detail often uses phrases like “smelled of” or “felt like.” Real detail dispenses with those distancing techniques and puts us in the middle of the scene.
Rather than use abstract terms, I am going to use examples. The first will always be composed of fake details — adequate, but not good. The second will be made of real details. In some ways, I am cheating here: the fake details will be mine, and the real details will come from experts in scene setting. I will try to follow their style as much as possible. I will explain the first two and leave analyzing the third up to you. Here goes:
It was night. The snow-covered fields looked white against the night’s darkness. A gust of wind swirled across the nearest field and he was there again, a gray shape in the darkness. He was drawing closer, much closer. Then she blinked, and he was gone. [KKR]
Night. The fields lay stark as a charcoal drawing — white drifts, the black clawed talons of the trees, the starlight piercingly bright. A gust of wind-driven snow swirled across the nearest field and he was there again. A shape in the twisting snow. A whisper of moccasins against white grains of ice. One step, another. He was drawing closer, much closer. Then she blinked, the snow swirled in a new flurry of wind, and he was gone. The field lay empty. [Charles de Lint, opening paragraph of his short story, “The Soft Whisper of Midnight Snow,” The Best of Pulphouse, St. Martins Press, 1991, P. 314]
The details are okay in the paragraph I wrote. They are vague, but they do give a picture. The arrival of “she” as the viewpoint character is a bit of a shock, because the style of writing makes the mysterious man the focus. By the end of the paragraph, the reader has forgotten that the man is appearing to someone.
Charles reminds you of the narrator by his choice of detail. In the second paragraph, we learn that the woman is an artist — no surprise, given that she sees the world as a charcoal drawing and then he explains that drawing so that we can see it too. His syntax also creates character. She is panicked and not thinking in full sentences. The rhythm carries us.
My paragraph uses the senses of sight and touch. (We can feel the blink and the wind gusting.)
Charles’ paragraph uses sight, touch, and sound, all to greater advantage. Again, word choice is important. The wind doesn’t just gust: the wind carries snow with it. A gust of wind-driven snow which swirls and later twists. He reminds us of the chill and harshness of that by using the phrase “white grains of ice” to describe snow. In his paragraph, we are part of the scene — a frightened observer (the viewpoint character) and when the word “she” appears toward the end, we expect it.
The same events happen in both scenes. Only the use of detail makes the difference.
The clouds had rolled in at sunset, black and heavy. The storm arrived as I drove to the edge of town, covering everything in light rain. I was about to stop at Del’s and pick up dinner when a car came out of a side street, hit a curb and swerved down the road. [KKR]
The sky had gone black at sunset, and the storm had churned inland from the Gulf and drenched New Iberia and littered East Main with leaves and tree branches from the long canopy of oaks that covered the street from the old brick post office to the drawbridge over Bayou Teche at the edge of town. The air was cool now, laced with light rain, heavy with the fecund smell of wet humus, night-blooming jasmine, roses and new bamboo. I was about to stop my truck at Del’s and pick up three crawfish dinners to go when a lavender Cadillac fishtailed out of a side street, caromed off a curb, bounced a hubcap up on a sidewalk, and left long serpentine lines of tire prints through the glazed pools of yellow light from the street lamps. [James Lee Burke, opening paragraph of his novel In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead, Hyperion, 1993, p. 1]
I see a thousand openings like the one I wrote above. Again, the events are the same as the events in Burke’s opening below, but my paragraph lacks punch even though it sets a scene. (We know we are in a storm, near a restaurant named Del’s, as a car comes off a side street.)
But notice the difference exact detail makes. Burke uses careening language to sweep us into the scene with the storm. The words “my truck” and “three crawfish dinners to go” make the stop at Del’s real. Burke is describing a real place, using place names, but not leaving out the reader who has never been to Louisiana. We know that the air was hot before the storm came. We know we are near the Gulf, on a road with canopied trees, where the air smells of humus, jasmine, roses and new bamboo. (Gee, Toto, guess we’re not in Oregon any more.) My paragraph could have happened anywhere, but Burke’s is unique to one place — a place I can imagine even though I have never been there.
Note too the way he uses verbs to add to the action. The lavender Cadillac fishtails. It caroms. The hubcap bounces on the curb. (Hear it? That’s a sound detail.)
My opening uses sight and touch (again, quite common actually), but Burke uses all five senses, including taste (or have you forgotten those crawfish dinners?) Yet never once does he use “sees,” “sounds like,” “feels like,” “smells of,” or “tastes of.” A master. An absolute master.
Okay. The third example comes from the middle of a novel and describes a place. I want you to examine how static description comes alive with no action to move it forward. This time the analysis is up to you.
About twenty minutes away, between the airfield and the motor pool, stood Billy’s. Billy’s had once been a French command post, but it didn’t look anything like a French command post. It looked like a roadhouse. Some boys served drinks, but in all the time I went there, I never learned where those boys went when Billy’s closed.
The building needed paint. It had no electricity, no ice, and no bathroom. When you needed a toilet, you used a hole in the floor. [KKR]
About twenty minutes away, at the curve in the steeply descending road to the airfield and the motor pool, stood an isolated wooden structure called Billy’s. Billy had gone home long ago, but his club, supposedly an old French command post, had endured. When it was open, a succession of slender Montagnard boys who slept in the nearly empty upstairs rooms served drinks. I visited these rooms two or three times, but I never learned where the boys went when Billy’s was closed. Billy’s did not look anything like a French command post: it looked like a roadhouse.
A long time ago, the building had been painted brown. Someone had once boarded up the two front windows on the lower floor, and someone else had torn off a narrow band of boards across each of the windows, so that light entered in two flat white bands that traveled across the floor during the day. There was no electricity and no ice. When you needed a toilet, you went to a cubicle with inverted metal bootprints on either side of a hole in the floor. [Peter Straub, from Part 2, section 2 of his novel, The Throat, published by Signet Books in 1994, p. 80]
Okay. I hope what I mean by the need for crisp detail is clearer now. If it isn’t, I suppose I can always go into more detail — later.
Copyright © 1994 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
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