Learning to See
A Writing Blog About Craft & Creative Process
"Learning to see is the basis for learning all of the arts."
- Flannery O'Connor
"Learning to see is the basis for learning all of the arts."
- Flannery O'Connor
Think about this way: when you’re house shopping, you investigate styles—Cape, Dutch Gambrel, single-family, condominium, etc.—and once you get an idea of what you like, you can narrow your search options. Why bother with an open house for a tiny ranch when you’re really looking for a two-story bungalow? Writing is similar: if you’ve set out to write a sci-fi novel, the tropes and ideas you’ll want to incorporate are very different from what they’d be if you’ve set out to write a memoir.
Now, let’s take this a step farther. You’ve landed the house of your dreams, and you’re ready to make it a home. Here comes the fun part—the details! Each house has its own style, and each owner has their own style, and blended together, voila! you’ve got a home.
To give a quick personal example, my family and I moved houses last year. The house we sold was a 1920 Craftsmen kit house with glorious Douglas fir woodwork. The house we bought is a 1960 split-level modern. They couldn’t be more different: the layouts are different, the room sizes are different, the windows are different sizes... I could go on. We moved all of our stuff in and—surprise—the rugs were now the wrong sizes, the curtain rods too short, the Victorian hutch completely out of place. To be sure, plenty of the bigger pieces—beds, couches, dining set—blended in without too much trouble. But the decorative touches—the details—were all wrong. Settling in here has been a slow process of deciding what belongs and what doesn’t, what fits and what doesn’t, what to replace or get rid or modify to suit our new home.
You know what I’m about to say, right?
Stories are like homes!
Each has its own essence, its own needs, its own air.
And writers are like homeowners: each has their own sensibility, their own attractions, their own direction.
Each story a writer crafts is unique in its own way, and details help make this so. Details add texture and personality to a story, the same way they do to a home.
To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at four different excerpts from four different books, and examine how each uses details to establish setting.
First, from Sarah Hall’s “Bees”:
“Soon you’ll find employment, probably quite menial; you’re not highly qualified, but for now you’re acquainting yourself with London, distancing yourself from the time before. It is a faceted city: ornate, sooty, modern. You aren’t afraid of it. ...You memorise noises, chimes, electrical thrums... And smells: the stale pavement, body odours, doorstep musk, green ponds. There are underground winds, motion sensations, beeps, commands. Your head has begun to fill with urban miscellanea, civic clutter, like keen junk.”
The passage is intense, riddled with sensation: sounds, smells, ideas crowd the scene in breathless succession. This is evocative of city life, especially for those who are new to it, as this narrator is. Note that there is very little that is “light” or “fresh” here—only the pond is green, but a green pond is likely one riddled with algae—and this too is indicative of the story’s driving force: this is a narrator grappling with loss, attempting to make sense of a dreadful past. She has escaped with her life, but what she sees now is only “keen junk.”
Now, from Andrea Barrett’s “Servants of the Map”:
“He fell into a fissure, forty feet deep. A thick tongue of ice, like the recalcitrant piece of heartwood bridging two halves of a split log, stretched between the uphill and downhill walls of the crevasse and broke his fall. He landed face down, draped around a narrow slab, arms and legs dangling into empty space. ...Above him he found a ceiling of snow, with a narrow slit of blue sky where his body had broken through....Before him the uphill wall of the crevasse glimmered smooth in the blue shadows. Slim ribs of ice, bulges and swellings reminiscent of Clara’s back and belly. Behind him the downhill wall was jagged and white and torn.”
Notice how sensual the language is in this passage: fissure, thick tongue, crevasse, slit. Notice, too, that the slim ribs of ice remind the protagonist of his wife’s body. This is a story about longing, and the protagonist, a British cartographer in the Himalayas, is split—quite literally here—between his desire for his wife and his yearning for adventure. The details are also quite formal: that recalcitrant piece of heartwood harkens back to days of hearth fires; yet the sensuality of Clara’s body is icy, just beyond the protagonist’s reach.
Next, from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower:
“She and I have gone out after dark to take the washing down from the clothesline. The day has been hot, as usual, and we both like the cool darkness of early night. There’s no moon, but we can see very well. The sky is full of stars.
The neighborhood wall is a massive, looming presence nearby. I see it as a crouching animal, perhaps about to spring, more threatening than protective.
...My stepmother hands me an armload of my youngest brother’s diapers. I take them, walk back toward the house where she has left her big wicker laundry basket, and pile the diapers atop the rest of the clothes. The basket is full. I look to see that my stepmother is not watching me, then let myself fall backward onto the soft mound of stiff, clean clothes. For a moment, the fall is like floating.”
What is striking about this passage is the way comfort and menace so easily dovetail. The narrator is young, but not innocent—she notes that the wall is “a crouching animal, perhaps about to spring” and yet she is full of trust: that fall backward into the clean laundry demonstrates faith in the world around her. Note, too, how simply the weather is described—“hot, as usual”—yet how much weight those few words carry. The sky is full of stars; the laundry basket is full of diapers. This world is as rich as it is simple—but that laundry is stiff and that wall is looming. There is little luxury here, and lurking just beyond is the menace of outside world.
Last, here’s a short description from When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri:
“The room was dimly lit, painted red. It smelled a little bit like cheese but there was no cheese in sight. To the left of the entrance was the bar, lined with vinyl stools, where girls of all sizes and colors were crowding in on each other, waving cash at the bartender, who had a pink streak in her hair. Some of these girls had choppy asymmetrical haircuts and pierced noses; some were in short-shorts with tube socks pulled up to their knees. Many of them had forgotten to put on a bra before leaving the house. The girls who looked like boys wore skinny neckties or faded T-shirts with jeans that hung low off their hips. A few of them reminded Katie of Justin Bieber before he grew muscles.”
From the first line of this passage, we’re aware we’re in a bar. By the second, we sense it’s kind of a dive. By the end of the passage, we know we’re in a lesbian bar, and we also know, very well, that our protagonist is completely unfamiliar with this type of establishment. Note her repetition of the word “girls” and the attention to detail she gives each type. Nothing is escaping Katie’s notice, not the vinyl stools, not the cash, not the bralessness, not the tube socks. She’s a fish out of water, and because of this, the details she notices are unabashedly honest, bordering on caricature. But she’s also, as the attention to detail shows us, curious. She’s assessing, not judging, this scene.
Now, take a moment to consider the differences in tone for each passage, as rendered by the details: “Bees” is sharp, visceral, overwhelming; “Servants of the Map” is uncharted, dangerous, and yet, surprisingly sensual. Parable of the Sower borders innocence and danger, while When Katie Met Cassidy is sweetly humorous.
Having read these four excerpts, let’s pan out a bit and consider how details inform genre. Is it at all surprising that “Bees” is contemporary literary fiction about a woman escaping an abusive past, or that When Katie Met Cassidy is romantic comedy starring two female protagonists? “Servants of the Map” is historical fiction, set in the mid-1800s; Parable of the Sower is apocalyptic and speculative, set against a world on fire.
The clues for each are in the details. Try to imagine the word “sooty” (from “Bees”) in When Katie Met Cassidy. Doesn’t work, does it? Both are contemporary, both are set in modern cities, both feature young female leads—but they are worlds apart. Or, what if the passage from Parable of the Sower included the words “blue shadows” (from “Servants of the Map”)? Arguably, it might fit, because shadows can be threatening. But, considering the heat that is central to the scene, would “blue” really work?
These passages span time and space; thematically and stylistically, they’re quite different. But they do share something in common: they all use details to their best advantage. Though details may seem negligible when considered aside larger craft elements like plot, character, setting—the truth is, details MAKE those larger craft elements what they are.
You wouldn’t sling any old piece of fabric over your windows and call it a curtain, would you? The same goes for how you treat your stories. Without the right details, a story’s setting isn’t grounded, its characters are flat and lifeless, its tone has no depth and its structure lacks integrity. Details bring a story to life, just as they make a house a home. Adorn each accordingly.
A details exercise: Think of the setting of a story you’re currently working on. Jot down the specifics of setting (time and place). Next, read through your work in progress and highlight or circle any and all details relating to the setting. Write down those words/sentences/passages on a separate piece of paper. What do you notice? Are they similar? Too similar/repetitive? Or are they dissonant, perhaps too much so? Now, using careful consideration, what details don’t fit the tone of your story? What words or phrases fall flat, considering your intention? Cross those out (or move them to a folder for later use in another story). Then, from the list of details that feel right, push outward. A thesaurus can be a fun way to explore new words—but be careful to remember: just because words are synonyms doesn’t mean they mean the same thing. I also love to evoke color in stories, and so will often make a flow chart (using crayons) of the colors that represent my main characters, settings, and emotions—the colors don’t always end up in the story, not specifically anyway, but sometimes they do via plant life, animals, clothing, etc. Another fun way to delve into details is to free associate: pick a word or phrase from your original list and let your mind fire quickly over the first things that come to mind from those words, and then keep pushing outward. You might end up with some silly stuff, or you might end up with some amazing stuff. Either way, your understanding of your setting will be better for the exercise. As you work, keep in mind that a good detail is both intimate and expansive.
STUDY WITH SARA at PVWW:
Upcoming Workshop: It's All In The Details: The Building Blocks of Story (4 weeks)
When: Sundays, October 27 - November 17 (10am - 12pm) in Williamsburg
Sign Up: At www.PioneerValleyWriters.com, under "Writing Workshops" or Here