Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Telling Detail

Some authors have the uncanny ability to bring their novels to life using rich, telling details.

I'm not talking about using heaps of description. Let's face it, your reader is most likely to skim right over endless paragraphs of flowery, adjective-laden prose.

I'm talking about those small, concrete details that make a scene ring true to life. A character feel real. A setting come alive so you can practically touch, smell and taste it.

These details are often simple, but the most powerful examples never feel clichéd. The author finds a way to describe something ordinary in a way that feels fresh, yet also deeply familiar.

Image by papaija2008
Today I wanted to share with you some examples from authors I love. Notice the way a talented writer will focus in on one or two small, seemingly trivial details within the larger frame.

"She was a big rawboned plain person, tall and unlikely, with a ragged haircut and a white tee-shirt coming unstitched along the shoulder." - The Idea of Perfection, Kate Grenville

"The coffee was so strong it didn't change color when she poured the milk in. 'You look different,' she said. We sat down at her dining room table, gilded chairs with harp backs. She pulled out small mats with Dutch tulips for our cups." - White Oleander, Janet Fitch

"The guy's wearing a khaki uniform, maybe he's come up from the engine room. He kneels, sets up some kind of monitor, and positions two things with black cords coming out of them on Mr. Stone's battered chest. He has short, blunt fingers with black hairs on them." - The Last Girls, Lee Smith.

"It was 1948 and the countryside, now that I think back on it, was as peaceful and well-ordered as an illustration from a Dick-and-Jane book. Lone gasoline pumps, fields flowered over like bedspreads. Trees turning perfectly red and perfectly yellow. At the entrance to the fairgrounds, a billboard showed a lipsticked, finger-waved housewife holding up a jar of homemade preserves."

In each of these examples, notice that the choice of detail is quite precise and deliberate. What do you think the author is trying to say about the character or setting she is describing?

In these next examples, the authors engage our senses in unexpected ways.

"The horses were behind them, still harnessed but unhitched from the plough, cropping grass with a sound like tearing bed sheets. The tea came out of a thermos but was still hot enough to take the roof off your mouth." - The Other Side of the Bridge, Mary Lawson

"Her hair, the color of caramel straw, was very straight and tattered at the ends; she was chewing gum and a strong smell of Juicy Fruit was coming off her."- The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

"There was the barbecue with the men around it poking at the cooking meat, and a big table in the shade under a tree, the food all covered with little domes of fly-wire, and a square of bright blue swimming-pool where children were jumping in, splashing up water that was like chips of glass in the sun." - The Idea of Perfection, Kate Grenville

Which of these examples says something to you as a reader? What feelings or associations or ideas do they conjure? 

Your turn. Would you share with us a sentence or two from your WIP where you've used a concrete detail to illuminate a character or setting?






Karen Schravemade lives in Australia, where she mothers by day and transforms into a fearless blogger by night. She's a Genesis finalist for women's fiction and is represented by Rachel Kent of Books & Such. Find her on TwitterGoogle+Pinterest, and getting creative on her home-making blog, A house full of sunshine.




12 comments:

Librarian Lavender said...

I always love it when an author can do that. I don't have any quotes ready though. Sometimes it only takes one or two extra words and it makes all the difference in the world. Great topic!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Yes, agreed! A couple of well-chosen words can convey so much. Some authors really have a gift for choosing the right detail that illuminates something much bigger.

Julia M. Reffner said...

Oh, I cannot even begin to post anything with these wonderful authors you've included. Love this and now I have some books to add to my reading list. Great post!

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Loved these posts, Karen! I especially loved the picture of "splashing up water that was like chips of glass in the sun." Just beautiful.

The one that really made me think about the character was this one: "Her hair, the color of caramel straw, was very straight and tattered at the ends; she was chewing gum and a strong smell of Juicy Fruit was coming off her."- The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

It gives such a vivid picture of the character!

Casey said...

This one was my favorite: "She was a big rawboned plain person, tall and unlikely, with a ragged haircut and a white tee-shirt coming unstitched along the shoulder." - The Idea of Perfection, Kate Grenville

Margie Lawson teaches classes on how to provoke a visceral reaction from your reader with using all five senses. With pulling out those unique words and descriptions you wouldn't automatically associate with the normal description. Moving beyond the normal and cliche. I loved what you shared in your descriptions, Karen!

Susan Anne Mason said...

Really great examples, Karen. Makes me think and makes me want to do better descriptions!

Cheers,
Sue

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Ooo, I love that... "splashing water like chips of glass." What a great post, Karen!

Here's an old one of mine...
A canopy of tangled branches from the aging Sweet Gum and White Ash trees caught the whipping lashes of fire, slashing vibrant flames through the dark, silky canvas of night.

:)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Julia, yes, you can't go wrong with any of those authors. They're all wonderful!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Jeanne, yes, I loved those ones too. Donna Tartt is one of my all-time favourite writers. Quite dark, but just brilliant with her use of language. She just won the Pulitzer prize for The Goldfinch, which I quoted from.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Casey, I've heard so many good things about Margie Lawson's classes. Moving beyond cliche doesn't come easily, but it's worth the extra mental effort to describe something in a fresh way. If only I could do that half as well as any of those writers, I'd be quite happy! :)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Thanks, Susan! I'm glad the examples were helpful! Those authors always inspire me to do better, too.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Great example Amy, thanks for sharing! You're the only brave soul here today... :)