All right. Let’s pick up where we left off. In Part I, we discussed how a compelling opening line helps to hook a reader. So, now that you’ve snagged your reader’s attention, what’s next? How do we keep the reader engaged? How do we create a seamless fictional world that is totally believable and engrossing?
In this post, we’ll take a look at the next key component of creating a compelling fictional world.
2. Master those devilish details.
The devil is in the details. They are essential for making your fictional world believable and compelling. They help create a vivid image of the character or scene in your reader’s mind, much like a movie.
But here’s where writers also falter. It’s tempting to think that more is better. Decades ago, that might have been true when the reader had the patience to read through pages of description. (Think of Melville’s description of the great white whale, Moby Dick.) But today, the reader is accustomed to a faster pace and wants the essentials right away. So, the lesson here is that a few carefully chosen details will do the trick. Otherwise, the reader will get lost in the description and the plot slows to a crawl.
There’s the opposite danger too: using too little detail. If we scrimp on the details, the reader won’t have enough information to anchor a character, scene, or place in his mind. As a result, she will be skimming the pages, flying high above our fictional landscape, ready to drop the book and bolt. So, choosing just a few key descriptors is essential. But how do we know which ones are important? And how do we know when we’ve provided enough detail?
Let’s take a look at how a master fiction writer, Olivia Manning, first describes one of her main characters, Count Yakimov, who is on the run from Nazi-occupied Europe and has just arrived by train in Bucharest:
On reaching the main station at Bucharest, Yakimov carried his luggage to the luggage office. He held a suitcase in each hand and his crocodile dressing-case hoisted up under his right elbow. His sable-lined greatcoat hung from his left arm. The porters–there were about a dozen to each passenger–followed him aghast. He might have been mobbed had not his vague, gentle gaze, ranging over their heads from his unusual height, given the impression he was out of reach. –Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy, p. 15.
In just a few sentences Olivia Manning reveals a lot about Yakimov: he’s very tall, a bit absent-minded, a kind soul, and is extremely lucky. We also know he isn’t a tourist, and has most likely been in transit for a while because he is carrying his off-season winter coat. We can assume that Yakimov is hoping to find a safe haven in Bucharest. But we also know it is dangerous there, given that the author says, “He might have been mobbed…” We also surmise that Yakimov comes from money, but is now a bit down in his luck. At the same time, Manning indicates that Yakimov has miraculously survived despite the odds. But how? The curious reader will want to keep reading to find out if poor old “Yaki” will stumble through another crisis and somehow triumph.
So, in a few lines, the author has accomplished several things: she uses the physical description of Yakimov at the train station to describe how he looks at that moment, as well as reveal his essential character. She is also setting the stage for future conflict.
Realizing that description serves multiple purposes was one key to improving my writing. It helped me chose double-duty details that serve several literary functions.
Let’s look at another example from another master, Flannery O’Connor. Do her details accomplish several literary functions? If so, what are they?
The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with , her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head.
Oh, dear. We all know stubborn people like the grandmother, don’t we? In a few short lines, Flannery O’Connor sets up the opposition between Bailey and his mother. A few key details–his bald head, the fact that he’s ignoring his mother, her thin hip, and the way she rattles the newspaper at him–are enough to set the stage for a battle of wills and help define the 2 characters. Who will win? We have to read more to find out.
And what if we are describing a place? How much detail is too much? What details do we pluck from the huge scene spread before us? Once again, let’s look at how a master does this. Here’s the opening scene from Zorba the Greek where Nikos Kazantzakis describes the cafe where the narrator meets Zorba:
I first met him in Piraeus. I wanted to take the boat for Crete and had gone down to the port. It was almost daybreak and raining. A strong sirocco was blowing the spray from the waves as far as the little cafe, whose glass doors were shut. The cafe reeked of brewing sage and human beings whose breath steamed the windows because of the cold outside. Five or six seamen, who had spent the night there, muffled in their brown goatskin reefer-jackets, were drinking coffee or sage and gazing out of the misty windows at the sea. The fish, dazed by the blows of the raging waters, had taken refuge in the depths, where they were waiting till calm was restored above. The fishermen crowding in the cafes were also waiting for the end of the storm, when the fish, reassured, would rise to the surface after the bait…
This description has lingered with me for years. The misty windows, the reeking fishermen, the steaming cups of coffee, the waves splashing against the walls of the little cafe–described vividly and distinctly. At the same time, we know that the author’s description is accomplishing more than establishing place. It is also setting up a great adventure, featuring the sea, Zorba, and our reliable witness, the narrator.
What other masters of detail would you add to my list? Do their descriptors serve multiple literary purposes? Do they help the literary engine “chug” along?
In our next installment, we’ll take a look at another tool in the writer’s bag of literary tricks to cast a magic spell over our readers and keep them reading.
And for those of you who would like to know more about the artist whose work was included here, take a look at this great video of how Chris La Porte created a monumental work in over 1,200 hours and with over 100 pencils. He is truly an artistic master of detail.
Categories: Fiction, Photography, Writing
Wonderful post, Patti. So informative to show how the reader picks up these little details and stores them away for future reference!
I love that one of the examples you used was from Flannery O’Connor. She’s one of my favorites.
She is wonderful, isn’t she? I have to read more of her work.
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This is so helpful! I’ve had several conversations with one of my readers about the detail in my writing, and he usually tells me that I have too much here or not enough there. Just last night, for example, I was working on a short story as a way to get to know one of the characters in my novel. I wanted to describe a little boy, crouched in the woods, trembling as a fire raged in the distance. I read the first paragraph to him, and he said that the detail was great. Then I read the second paragraph, and he said it was too much. This is something I struggle with, and looking at the story again today, I still can’t figure out the balance between too much detail and not enough.
Hi Kelly. Terrific! It is a tough balance–not too little and not too much. I think it’s helpful to associate one main detail or several little details with a character. For example, I refer to several key descriptors for my main characters. Elio Sardolini is skinny and hungry. Donato is vain and often strokes his mustache or checks his reflection in mirrors and windows. I think that helps the reader visualize them and anchor them in his/her mind.
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