Writing Fiction: Details, Details

Apparently, at the microscopic level it is possible to see that print rests on top of the page.  Similarly, I can read a whole chapter without ever quite getting absorbed by it.  But this is what I hope for: the point when it becomes immaterial whether I am reading a book or a Kindle.

One of the ways in which writers achieve this is in their use of detail.  In the discussion of character I quoted from Lisbeth Salander’s trip to Ikea.  The full list of what she buys is, ‘Two Karlanda sofas with sand coloured upholstery, five Poang armchairs, two round side tables of clear lacquered birch, a Svansbo coffee table, and several Lack occasional tables.’  It would have been easier to tell us that she went to Ikea and bought some furniture, but it doesn’t engage in the same way, the list somehow adds to character and puts you next to her.

In Vile Bodies Evelyn Waugh could have written, ‘There were many choices on offer for breakfast but Adam and Nina ate frugally.’  Instead he writes, ‘Adam and Nina breakfasted alone in the dining-room.  There was a row of silver plates kept hot by spirit lamps which held an omelette and devilled partridges and kedgeree and kidneys and sole and some rolls; there was also a ham and a tongue and some brawn and dish of pickled herrings.’  A bit heavy, but in my pre-vegetarian days I’m sure I could have tackled it.  Not only does this give a clear description of an unnecessarily excessive breakfast in an English country house, but also sets up the bathetic joke at the end. ‘Nina ate an apple and Adam ate some toast.’

Stephen King, when writing about his hero’s alcoholism, could have said, ‘His hangover made him feel nauseous.’  Instead, ‘His stomach gave a liquid lurch.  He burped up a mouthful of sour gunk that tasted of whiskey and swallowed it back.’  Yuk.  And say no more: drinking ain’t fun.

Dickens is a little different.  He often piles on repetitive detail (fog, fog, fog; stone, stone, stone) as a metaphor for some moral condition which surrounds the characters.  But occasionally, he just lets you have the scene.  ‘A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do.  It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.’ (Tale of Two Cities) Which really makes you feel that you’re with the characters as they follow their carriage up a muddy hill.

The final example is from a book that is almost totally a description of details.  In Life, A User’s Manual, a Parisian block of flats is described in almost obsessive detail.  The furnishings, the knick-knacks, the works of art and books.  But hidden in them are clues to the characters of the occupants.  This is from the description of the ‘witch’s mirrors’ that the evil Winckler has made, ‘He finicked over each frame for days on end, cutting, fretsawing endlessly until it was an almost immaterial piece of wooden lace, in whose centre the small polished mirror looked like a metallic glance.  An icy eye, wide open, full of irony and malice.’  Which reminds me, winter’s on its way.

I have nothing wise to say about all of this.  Other than the fact that details are part of the art of writing.  Which I would do well to remember.

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4 thoughts on “Writing Fiction: Details, Details

  1. Thanks. I suspect that with Georges Perec (Life a User’s Manual) it was very conscious. And Evelyn Waugh knew how to construct a joke. With Stephen King and Charles Dickens I’d like to believe that the process was more unconscious. That they both already learned that detail works.

  2. At a Spread the Word workshop on writing the memoir, RickGekoski said that Ian McEwan is the greatest exponent of the paragraph. In the absence of anything else to do on this foul day, I am about to examine that claim.

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