Thursday, September 25, 2008

It's All In The Details

How to fill in the details of a story?

As I was considering this question for Write On Wednesdays, my five-year old was coloring in her Disney coloring book. I am in awe of how specific she is about coloring. How she will match the color of the necklace to the hem of a dress. No one taught her to do this. She just looks in her box of crayons and makes these choices. And now, to my word-loving delight, she asks me to read the name of the crayon color. Purple Pizzazz. Red Violet. Midnight Blue. Tickle Me Pink. Mango Tango. And I can see she is just as excited about the descriptions, too. So it got me to thinking that writing the details of a story has a lot in common with coloring. You begin with the thick black sketch of an idea, and then you look in your box of crayons and begin filling in the image.

When it comes to writing about details, two things come to mind that I learned in college about my own writing. You see, I am a sprinter. I can get that black sketch outline on the page with no problem. But to be a writer of details, you must be prepared for a marathon. My writing professor chided me for always writing horizontally. He told me to write vertically, to write down. And this was sage advice. When I stop and slow down inside a scene, I understand what it means to write down, to write vertically, staying with a specific image or idea long enough to stretch it out from north to south, instead of being concerned with going so far east to west. And when I do this, I find this is the real joy of the writing process.

Now, when I begin a new novel, I still give in to sprinting through the action. I still have to do this and maybe that’s because I was a screenwriter before I began writing novels. But I’ve learned to trust this process. Once the rushed blueprint is written, I return to the beginning and spend most of my writing time going back and filling in the colors and the details.

The second lesson I remember about details was when my professor made an example of me in his class. I had written a scene about a housewife ironing. I wrote something like, “She did her work in solitude, moving the iron back and forth as if it was her dance partner.” Nothing brilliant here. But the lesson my prof illustrated was how this sentence made an inanimate object come to life, personified it in a way that revealed how this woman might be lonely, how she might be underappreciated. This example has stayed with me to this day. I like noticing how characters, and all people, are constantly revealing themselves in tiny, dramatic ways like my lonely housewife.

The way a husband always hits his teeth with the tines of a fork when he eats.

The way a grandmother puts two Sweet N Lows in her coffee and stirs counter-clockwise three times, every time.

The way a woman rubs her thumb across the cool metal of her wedding band. Why? To check if she’s still married? Or, to check if she’s STILL married?

It's all in the details.
K. Harrington

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