Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Dreams From My Father (With Apologies to the President)

Details. Telling details. (You have to use your "Bond. James Bond" voice. Otherwise it's no good.)

Really, though, I find that to be an apt little wording: telling details. Details that tell something, that show something. I think that's one of the keys to good writing, finding those details that help tell the story. Details that reveal meaning and character. Yet it's not always easy to find those details. Too prosaic a detail and it's unrevealing, too cliched and it's boring or seems superfluous. Yet if it's too innocuous it can seem forced, too much of a stretch, as if the writer is drawing attention to all the crazy little things in life, to the zaniness of their own perceptions.

I think looking at real details has helped me craft fictional ones of my own. Falling in love with my father's area of expertise was part of this. My father was a History Professor. I wasn't really into history when I was young. My father's endless books were more decoration than opportunity. Yet the older I've gotten the more I've been drawn into history and memoir - for what is a memoir except an exploration of personal history?

History, too, is about the details. What do you select from the vast array of facts? What makes the story? For history and memoir are about story, too, about drawing the reader into a set of experiences. A memoir, for example, is a set of experiential details arranged to tell a story, and I find it fascinating to see how writers select details to tell their own stories. What do they share? And what do they avoid sharing? What are the details that give meaning to their own lives? What are the details that they see as representative of them, of the journey they've been on?

There are interesting patterns here for fiction writers to study. Sort of like primers for the creation of characters... and the same goes for events, too. The details of events, of a causal chain, of how action and reaction play against each other... History, I think, can show you the pattern of real events. Cause and effect have a sudden veracity and truth, they convince, and this, I think, is something that's invaluable for fiction writers. How do things tie together? The synchronicity of events?

Increasingly I find the backdrop of my fictional stories to be history, as if my father's walls of books have crept into my consciousness. If my camera-eye focuses on a fictional character then just beyond, half-hidden in the blurred background, lie the walls of history. If I hear characters speaking, it is always over the drone of real voices that gift a pattern of reality.

Some gifts are long in being appreciated, and my father's gift of history is one of these. And yet I do appreciate it, and hope now that I can pass a wall of books to my own children.


Bookworm1605 said...

History was one of my favorite subjects. I think if I hadn't become a business tycoon I'd love to have been a history professor.

The devil is in the details, they say, especially for a writer. I think it's vital to know all the details, from the superfluous to the innocuous, but the real trick in cooking up a good narrative is choosing the right details and when to reveal them. It's all about timing. OK, maybe not all, but timing is important here. The steady leaking of important details to the reader, being careful to avoid the dreaded info-dump.

And it's key to be parsimonious (ha! I came up with my very own -ous word!) in the doling out of these details. I wonder what the ratio is of the proper amount of details to reveal in a story versus the total amount of detail a writer creates as a part of worldbuilding. I bet it's crazy, like 20-80 or 10-90.

And I get the 'looking at real details' bit, too. I'm a people watcher. I love to just sit in public places and watch people and their antics, give them backstories and such.

I know, I know. I should take up a sport or something that doesn't make me look like a stalker.

What can I say? I'm a writer.

Wanu said...

Here's interesting. I agree with the smooth narrative point, in that it's best not to jerk the reader's attention all over the place, but I think inclusion of detail that may seem extraneous to some is a style choice.

I'd say that there are many, many instances in published work where a scene, or chapter/s even, don't bind tightly to a streamlined progression. I tend to read the 'Narrative' Story of the Week because subscription was free. They're only short stories, but there's a lot of fluff in them. It's obvious the editor's preference is to have nice flow and beautiful language rather than tension and drama, or even resolution in some cases (hence the name 'Narrative' I guess), but I think that shows the variance in subjectivity of reader response, and even market response.

I like the simple test: does the scene progress the plot, and/or show character? (and the subsequent answer: if not, cut it). With the character question, a lot can ride through. Authors are always going to disagree on whether certain character-revealing scenes are necessary, especially if the scenes in question are about secondary characters.

I always moan about David Eddings' loooooong segues of journeying, or short term challenges that pop up between the hero and the climax. That style of storytelling frustrates me, but for others it's fine.

I think it's best not to lose sight of those differences in reader response when we start to edit a story against an ideal template. I'm getting better at chopping and changing, but it's always with an awareness that I've read plenty of books that meandered a little. Some of them meandered a lot.

Bookworm1605 said...

Well, I will admit that writing styles and specifially the placement of details is a bit like interior decorating. Some folks enjoy cluttered, overwrought decor--others prefer more spartan, almost utilitarian fare. It's all in what the story requires, I suppose.

Ink said...

And Wanu, of course, prefers fluffy pink bunnies. Everywhere. I mean, seriously...