The Significance of Concrete in Fiction
Welcome back, True Believers! Here’s what we’re looking to accomplish this week:
- Figure out what details to include in our stories;
- Read/watch/listen to a published story and pay attention to the details the writer uses; and,
- Take a stab at writing a story where something impossible happens, but where we totally believe it happened anyway.
All in the Details
What makes one story good and another one great? Well, as the cliché says, it’s all in the details. But which details do you put in and which details do you leave out?
According to Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, the details we include in our stories should be concrete and they should be significant.
“But, Clark,” I hear you asking, “what makes a detail concrete? And what makes one significant?”
Burroway tells us that a detail is “concrete” when it appeals to the senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound.
She goes on to say that a detail is “significant” if it also conveys an idea, a judgment, or both.
When you think of the senses, especially as they’re depicted in stories and novels, which do you seem to encounter the most? Which do you feel like you encounter the least? And why do you think that’s the way it is?
For me, I long for more scent-related details in the stories and books I read. I think smell is hard to do, but it’s so evocative when an author pulls it off. Take for example the opening pages of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, which so perfectly evokes the reek of old Paris that I can still imagine it twenty years after reading the book.
Taste is similarly underdone. Too many writers never go beyond “sour,” “sweet,” and “savory.”
Contrarywise—isn’t that a fun Wonderlandian word?—I think that the sense of sight is the most overdone, especially when it comes to people’s appearances. Too many novice authors rattle off a laundry list of physical attributes for every character we meet, as if appearance alone tells us anything about a person. And I think we writers do this because so many of us grow up on films and TV and comics—predominantly visual media. We have the vocabulary to describe the basic attributes of a human being (hair and eye color, height and weight, types of clothes), so we use that.
What we don’t have—or, rather, what I think we need to work on early and and often in our writing careers—is a sense of which details matter, and why.
In so many areas of our lives, we prize objectivity. Hell, we strive for it. But objectivity is useless in fiction. The details we include in our stories should always be subjective. They should convey a point of view, even if the person telling the story is trying to portray themself as an impartial observer.
Because here’s the rub, kid: no one is impartial. To be human is to be biased.
Consider the difference between “He sweats” and “He sweats so heavy and so thick that the music feels like real work for once.”
In the first example, what do we know about the “he” character? We know that he’s sweating, and that’s about it.
Great. He’s sweating. Why the fuck should I care? Can I go back to my Candy Crush now?
Beyond the sweating “he,” what do we know about the narrator, the person observing this “he”? Nothing, right? We don’t know a damn thing.
And if I don’t know a damn thing about you, why should I listen to your story? There’s a million and one stories I haven’t heard from folx I do know, or at least kinda understand something about, and I could be reading any one of those stories instead.
Now look at that second example: “He sweats so heavy and so thick that the music feels like real work for once.”
We not only know something about the quality of the sweat on the “he” character—it’s “heavy” and “thick”—but we know that he’s a musician, and a musician for whom playing comes easy.
As for the narrator, we know something about them now too. They care about work, and they have opinions about what constitutes real work. Those are the details they’re choosing to give us in this moment, and the details they choose say as much about them as they do about the “he” character they’re describing.
The details you choose make the story you’re telling your story and no one else’s.
Both, Not Either/Or
We need the details we choose to be both significant and concrete. It’s not an either/or proposition. If we go for details that we think are significant, but forget to make them concrete, we end up with broad generalizations that the reader may or may not identify with. And if they don’t identify with our details, they’re out. They have too many other things to do, see, and read.
Let’s go back to Janet Burroway for a second. In Writing Fiction, she offers a perfect example of this problem and how to avoid it. She writes “Here is a passage from a young writer, which fails through lack of appeal to the senses”:
Debbie was a very stubborn and completely independent person, and was always doing things her way despite her parents' efforts to get her to conform. Her father was an executive in a dress manufacturing company, and was able to afford his family all the luxuries and comforts of life. But Debbie was completely indifferent to her family's affluence.
Compare that with:
Debbie would wear a tank top to a tea party if she pleased, with fluorescent earrings and ankle-strap sandals.
"Oh, sweetheart," Mrs. Chiddister would stand in the doorway wringing her hands. "It's not nice."
"Not who?" Debbie would say, and add a fringed belt.
Mr. Chiddister was Artistic Director of the Boston branch of Cardin, and had a high respect for what he called "elegant textures," which ranged from handwoven tweed to gold filigree, and which he willingly offered his daughter. Debbie preferred her laminated wrist bangles.
As Burroway points out, there are too many questions in the first example. “What constitutes stubbornness? Independence? Indifference? Affluence?”
Further, since the judgments are supported by generalizations, we have no sense of the individuality of the characters, which alone would bring them to life on the page. What things was she always doing? What efforts did her parents make to get her to conform? What level of executive? What dress manufacturing company? What luxuries and comforts?
To be a writer is to do two things:
- Write a lot.
- Read a lot.
In my first lesson, you only had to read my notes on the craft. Going forward, I’m going to have you read a story as part of each lesson. And I’m going to ask you to look at each story as a writer, and not just as a reader.
What that mean? I hear you asking.
At the risk of quoting from Burroway too much, I’ll give you one more gem that I live by:
Read 'the way a young architect looks at a building, or a medical student watches an operation, both devotedly, hoping to learn from a master, and critically alert for any possible mistake.'
When you read as a writer, you’re reading to understand how the story was made. What happens on the page to make you feel the way you do when you read a certain section? And how can you apply that to your own writing?
To ease you into this, I’m going to let you watch/listen to this week’s story (instead of reading it). It’s a piece by the author Monica Byrne, the first piece of hers I recall encountering, and it was presented at the TED conference in 2016.
I want you to watch this once as a reader/viewer, for the sheer enjoyment of it. Then, I want you to re-watch it and take notes on the details Byrne chooses to tell her story with. How are they significant? How are they concrete? And does she do anything with details that flat-out knocks your socks off?
Okay, since I’ve already made this Burroway Appreciation Week, let’s close with an exercise from Writing Fiction:
One way to test your skill in the use of concrete, significant detail is to create a reality that is convincing—and yet literally impossible. To begin, draft a three-to-five page story in which a single impossible event happens in the everyday world. (For example, a dog tells fortunes, a secret message appears on a pizza, the radio announcer speaks in an ex-husband’s voice—supermarket tabloids can be a good source of ideas.) First, focus on using detail to create the reality of both the normal world and the impossible event—the more believable the reality is, the more seamlessly readers will accept the magic.
Good luck! I’ll see you back here next week.