Friday, July 30, 2010

The detail versus the details

My friend Jeanne used to say she skipped over the description in novels because it was so boring. I skimmed it, being sure it contained some clues about the characters. As I write more and take writing classes, I've found a great focus on getting the details. Show, don't tell is a strategy everyone recommends today, and that leads to details, to descriptions of how John looked after Ellen told him she was pregnant, not "he was upset."

On the other hand, have you seen places where authors give you too many details? Color, shape, size, clothing, hair, shoes, nailpolish, makeup, etc etc. No one can really take in that many details at once when they look at a person casually. When you meet someone, you don't take inventory the way a policeman writing up a description might. You catch a few details. Which ones? Some people say you should include "significant details" in writing descriptions. To me, that means I should include what makes this person unique or memorable. If you see them crossing the street and the next day you try to name one thing you think you know for sure about how they looked, will it be the oversized cowlick in the back of the head or the izod sweater with a big black stain on one elbow or will it be blond and blue eyed, loafers, blue slacks, white teeth? I would guess you'd recall the first two items, things you don't see every day. That's a good way to pick out significant versus excess details.

I like Chekhov stories for many reasons, but one reason is that uncanny ability to choose the significant detail about a place, a table, a person. Once you know it's okay not to keep every possible detail, it's fun to choose the one or two that give the reader the best sense of that scene.