Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Details Elementary, My Dear Watson

By Mary Vee

Can you imagine driving through a mountain pass, rounding a curve and finding this spectacular view? It’d happen on the Chief Joseph Scenic Parkway in the Rocky Mountains.

Last weekend, as my family drove passed this lake, I shouted, “Stop the car!” I stepped onto the side of the road and heard a single sound. A duck hidden somewhere in the still silence had something to say. Where was it? I couldn’t see it.

I pressed the zoom and focused my camera on the brush. Brilliant details came to life, colors I hadn’t noticed, plants I hadn’t seen, reflections in the water. I snapped the photo.

Still, I could barely see the duck.

I zoomed the lens again until the duck appeared. It was there all the time!

Standing on the outskirts of this magnificent creation, I realized the one component that caused me to dwell on the scene, was the one I couldn’t see. This small practically invisible detail completed God's picture.

Think about your favorite scenery. Something big might have captured your attention, but something small held your attention. Was it the smell of lilac, or the wood-burning stove? Perhaps you saw a splash of indigo barely visible in the rainbow, or the black specks on a flower. Maybe it was the prickly grass under your feet, or the silky material your arm rubbed against. Could it be the pungent dead skunk miles down the road so profuse you could taste it?

In Episode IV of Star Wars, the Dark Side boasted of it’s fully operational death star. Admiral Tarkin demonstrated its destructive power to Princess Leia by obliterating a nearby planet. But the race to dominate the Rebellion resulted in an oversight of details. While this battle station appeared dynamic, designers neglected important details which would thwart an attack by a single, small fighter. The result? Annihilation.

I must say that last paragraph was fun to write.

Details are foundational to our WIP (work in progress). Here is a checklist of some components you can look for in your manuscript:

1. SUFFICIENT DETAILS: Is each setting painted realistically, helping the reader to picture the scene in their mind? Is there a “don’t touch-wet paint” sign on park bench the Sunday before Memorial Day where the homeless person sleeps?

2. INTEGRATED DETAILS: Are details threaded throughout the manuscript? Sugar stirred into brownie batter is delicious, clumped in one area is…well...nasty.

3. ESSENTIAL DETAILS: Do the details add to your story? Sherlock Holmes solved every crime by noticing essential details. During each story his assistant asked, “How did you know?” Mr. Holmes replied, “Elementary my dear Watson …” and preceded to point out the detail right in front of Watson's nose.

4. TOO MUCH!: Is there a page-and-a-half describing a sword? Too many details distract readers from the real story, prevent use of their imagination, and can insult them into saying, “OK I know what a sword looks like!”

5. LOGICAL DETAILS: Do the details flow from one page to the next? Did Carl set his coffee cup on the mantel then a page later take a gulp from the same cup…before he picked it up?

While the grandiose (like the mountain) may pique our interest, it is the small detail that completes the picture and tells us—Yes, this makes sense!

Have you read a book and felt confused as to what was going on, who was doing what, where exactly was the character, or how did something happen? What if you added additional information to the scene, would it have helped? Here is the big question, have you noticed missing details in your own WIP? Tell us your own Sherlock Holmes story of the time you discovered something missing in your manuscript.


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Oh what an excellent post, Mary! Your list is extremely helpful. I've found in my MS, I don't have enough details. I like action and dialogue and skim over the details. But details can add so much flavor to the story and it can bring you into the setting or the scene in a way that dialogue cannot.

Unknown said...

I forget to add all of the senses in my details. I've gone back into my manuscript to make sure they're scattered throughout.

Casey said...

Wonderful post, Mary!! I really like your checklist. Details are some things that I need to work on. Sprinkling them in like a fine mist of salt. Don't have it the food tastes awful, but watch how much you put in.

I usually have too much in one area or none at all. Proportion is something I need to learn for sure!!

Anonymous said...

I tend to start out with too many details and have to edit them down after I finish the first draft, especially in my historicals. It's hard, y'know, once you've done all that research to not include those fascinating little details into the story. It's also hard, sometimes, to figure out what's necessary and what can be cut. That's when having beta readers (those who aren't writers) come into play---because they can tell you, as a READER, what's important to them and what isn't.

::sigh:: But sometimes, it's just so hard to cut out something I thought was a unique little detail that adds authenticity when a reader or editor tells me it isn't necessary.

Mary Vee Writer said...

Sherrinda, I have the same problem, hence the idea for this post.

Julie, One of my writing instructors drilled the inclusion of "senses" into my writing. ("So..Mary..," he'd say " does one feel when they're angry?" He always found a place to ask a question like that!)I think I was a bit hard of hearing at that time and made the poor man earn his fee. He was persistent. :)

Casey, How timely that this post followed yesterday's backstory post. Dumping details is not the focus here, but it tends to be a temptation, like you say. Following yesterday's suggestions will help all of us. I agree with you, seasoned details will help the reader visualize the story without boring them. Good point, thanks :)

Kay, I find my teen daughter can be a ruthless slasher of my words. I love her for it. She has the guts to do what I don't. Gotta love those beta readers who help so much:)

Krista Phillips said...

GREAT list Mary!!! Thank you!!

I have the same problem as Sherrinda. I like the action, I like things moving, and I tend to skim over the details (particularly descriptions.) I have to put them in purposely, many times during the rewrites. I'm also NOT known for my great descriptions... SOME of that I think is style. But I realize I need to add more in places.

I'd also add to be aware of POV when giving details. For example, in the beginning of one of my books, I am in the heroine's POV and she's working at a hair salon. I don't describe the smells of the salon because, for her, the salon smell is "normal" and isn't something she'd notice or think about.

However, later in the book she comes back into the salon reluctantly after 3 weeks of being away. THEN I describe the sounds/smells... because she is experiencing them and they are almost putrid to her nose.

Pepper said...

Great post, Mary.
Sorry I'm coming in late.
I have a tendency to post too many details. 'Overwriting' is the term I've been told...many times :-)
Evidently, I need to zoom out on my camera a bit and get to the dialogue

Mia said...

Sorry I'm commenting a bit late! I always do that :)

Anyway, great post, Mary. I love the tips. Description and details are something I personally think I'm awful at. Like others already mentioned, I get caught up in the action and forget to pause for a detail or two. Yet oddly enough, description is what I get most complimented on in my writing. I still don't think I'm all that good at it, but maybe it is OK to not have paragraphs of descriptions. Maybe just a few details here and there are OK.

And Krista, I love how you describe the smells of a hair salon through your character after she hasn't been there for a few weeks. Describing things realistically through my character's POV is something else I need to work on :)