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From the
Other Side
by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©2003 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved

The devil is in the details.
-- Unknown

How many clues to someone's personality can you shoehorn into sixty words? I'll offer my own answer shortly, but before we start, a definition is in order. What I'll cover today is described by many terms -- 'color', 'background', and 'depth', to name only three -- but none of them fully describes what I'm talking about. In any case, I like 'detail', so that's the word I'll use. Detail is the difference between a flat, unadorned statement of facts and events (i.e., the proverbial business memo) and the rich, entertaining texture of a story. Detail is not plot; rather, detail is what fills out the dull spots in a plot, adding depth and color to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. We spoke about this briefly in the column on Complexity, but that was only in terms of too little vs. too much. In this column, we'll try to clarify what details should be included, why you want to include them, and how to slip them in without damaging the story. And now, with no further ado:

Gramps slowly rocked back and forth. I couldn't help but stare admiringly into his craggy, sea-worn face as his rheumy eyes squinted at the omnipresent whittling in his hand while he listened to me prattle on about my day. Finally, he put down his woodworking and gently patted me on the head. "Ah-yup! Time fa dinna, Johnny-boy."

The above paragraph is only fifty-seven words long. How much of it is detail, and how much is plotting? The answer is, almost all of it is the former -- detail. With his craggy face and rheumy eyes (oh, and a name like Gramps) it's safe to assume that the fellow described by the narrator is probably old. That he has time to whittle constantly and listen to his grandson, suggests he's probably retired. That he actually attends to his grandson's 'prattling' suggests he dotes on the boy. Finally, and this is one of the easier pieces of information to glean from the text, it's dinner time. By the way, did anyone come to the conclusion that Gramps was a sailor and a New Englander?

So which parts of it are plot, rather than detail? Much of it could be plot -- for example, if the story is a murder mystery, Gramps' poor vision could weigh heavily in the solution -- but in general, given the limited information provided, it's best to say not. In the most basic terms, the only aspect of the above paragraph that is clearly plot is, 'two characters go to dinner'. This assumes that plot is the action in a story and the detail is what helps the reader expand their internal imagery regarding the story.

Before I go on, I want to talk about when detail isn't needed. As a general rule -- remember all rules can be, and occasionally are, broken -- the opening paragraph is not a good place for a lot of detail. This is the paragraph where you want to grab the reader's attention, and that is best done with either action or a catchy concept.


Good Not So Good
"It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

It was an average day. The sun shone through a light layer of clouds. The dew had dried on the leaves. Children were playing and lawns were being mowed. Cars drove by my front porch with people dressed for church...

Clearly, Dickens would have had the lead if this were actually a contest to see who could write the best opening paragraph, but even "Charlie invented..." is better than the last example. "It was an average day..." has plenty of details, but it's boring. Nothing is happening, or at least nothing the reader might care to read about. Unless something really interesting happens very soon, or the reader is very patient, the rest of the story will not be read.

The other good place to avoid sudden detail is in the middle of action.


Good Not So Good
Salazar squinted against the blinding flash of sunlight from the Potentate's sword. Lord Lived laughed as he used the new opening to swing his blade in a deadly arc toward Salazar's head. 

"Now wait just a moment, Evil Potentate," said Salazar. "Using the sun like that is against the great Book of Rules."

The bejeweled sword, already shining from the years of loving care that had been bestowed upon it, glinted and sparkled in the bright sunlight of the cloudless sky as it swung in a deadly arc toward Salazar's head.

"Now wait just a moment, Evil Potentate," said Salazar. "Using the sun like that is against the great Book of Rules."

So why is one better than another? Imagine this is the middle of a fight scene. Salazar and the evil Potentate are locked in a struggle to the death -- swords flash and steel rings as the two opponents thrust and parry in their battle to the death -- and suddenly, the battle screeches to a halt while somebody describes the Potentate's sword? Bad move. We should have learned that the Potentate's sword was shiny and well maintained long before the battle, since action scenes should be written with short, direct sentences and not cluttered with a lot of detail.

Actually, that brings up our next point, deciding when to add detail.


We've already noted why opening paragraphs and in the middle of action scenes are not a good time for a lot of detail, but it's always easier to say what is not than what is. Consistent with the concept of foreshadowing, before the information is needed is a good start toward an answer. Have you ever read a story where the protagonist suddenly demonstrates a crucial skill at the moment of need -- and you never knew he had that skill? Cactus Jack is about to lose his sidekick unless he can convince the Duchess that he is royalty over an elaborate dinner. Yeah, right! This is why foreshadowing is essential to good writing. The story rapidly becomes unbelievable unless somewhere earlier in the tale, it is discovered that, before moving west, good old Cactus had once worked as an English butler. This is also called the setup. 

There's no hard and fast rule for when the setup details should go into a story, but the biggest trick, and the sign of a really good writer, is when it can be blended into the story. 

Good Not So Good
Cactus Jack scratched himself where the saddle horn was pinching uncomfortably and turned to his trusty partner, Sylvester. "Hey Sly, did I ever tell you about Lord Leo? A real blueblood, that'n, but he couldn't tell a teaspoon from a demitasse cup!" Cactus laughed and slapped his chap-covered thigh as his sidekick scratched his head in confusion. "Why, once I hadda stand behind him during a dinner with the Queen to coach him through it." Cactus Jack scratched himself where the saddle horn was pinching uncomfortably and turned to his trusty partner, Sylvester. "Hey Sly, did I ever tell you that I used to be an English butler so I know everything that would be needed to dine with proper etiquette at a royal banquet?"

Another time when detail is needed is to create a setting. In the 1950s science fiction movies were 'B' movies at best. Budgets were low to nonexistent. The king of these low budget movies was Ed Wood, producer/director of that all time classic bad movie, Plan Nine from Outer Space. Without criticizing the plot and acting -- it's just too easy -- they seemed to have a lot of scenes with blank walls and curtains. The few props that did exist were often cardboard with flashing lights. Now compare that to any science fiction movie made in the last few years (e.g., The Matrix, Terminator, Tomb Raider, X-Men). Rich, colorful backgrounds that help the plot -- and the acting -- along are common. The same should apply to the written word.

The werewolf approached slowly, savoring the fear of its prey. Jessica slowly backed away, hand running along the railing as she tried to keep just out of reach of the slavering jaws and the sharp, sharp claws. She considered jumping the rail, but that would be certain death. The light struck the monster, a light so bright that it howled in pain and clawed at its face. That was when she made her move, running past the temporarily blinded wolfman to the comparative safety of the door leading inside.

This is a reasonable action sequence. It even includes a decent amount of detail without detracting from the dramatics. Of course, it would have been much better if there were an explanation of why she would die if she jumped over the railing; why would jumping over a small picket fence onto the sidewalk beside one's house be certain death? Similarly, it would be nice to know where the blindingly bright light came from. The answer would be the foreshadowing which explains that the railing was on the tower walk of a lighthouse, and there was nothing but rocks and roiling surf several hundred feet below.


The final example of when detail helps is in helping to demonstrate the uniqueness of a character.

If you hear a character say "Ah-yup!", whom will you think it is? Remember the first story segment? Did you say it was Gramps? If you did, I've done a good job of using details to help you, the reader, distinguish between characters. If not, I'll bet it makes sense now that you've been reminded -- and it has been a long time since I offered that one clue. Writers can use details such as stock phrases, gestures, physical abilities or limitations, color of clothing preferences, food or music preferences etc. to provide alternative clues to the character speaking or acting. On the other hand, I'm certain you love to read stories in which 'George does this', and 'George does that', and 'George says this', and 'George says that', and... Well, you get the idea. Even worse, to my mind, is the story that says 'he' when more than one 'he' is present:

"Watch out, Sly!" Cactus Jack shouted.

He threw himself from his horse, slipping his six-shooter from its holster even before he hit the ground and rolled while his friend did the same.

I hope it was Cactus Jack that did all the dropping, rolling and gun pulling, but I can't tell from the above. Similarly, if I said it was good old Cactus each time, you'd be awfully tired of hearing that name. Try it. You'll see what I mean.

Anyway, it's time to wrap this column up, so stop reading this and -- get writing!

Jeffrey M. Mahr, Senior Editor

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