Alice’s Restaurant

January 24, 2007

The Life of Your Story Is In The Details

Filed under: Writing Technique — aliceaudrey @ 1:07 am

The devil may be in the details, but so is the life of your story.

This was not a lesson I learned easily. It was darned hard for my critique partners to get my head out of the clouds so I could focus on the five senses.  To this day I have to remember to go back and add more.

Details make a huge difference.  I’m afraid this is the sort of thing most people aren’t going to believe without seeing for themselves.  So lets get straight to the examples.

Since I have no intention of really doing anything with it, let’s use the FanLit Forever Challenge 3 Round One story about the two brothers.  We’ll take the story from the point where Benedict has ridden out to Andrew, found him alive after the plain crash, and done what he can for him.  Andrew has a broken leg, but he’s awake and aware.  Remember, they had a falling out over a woman years earlier.

.
***

“She wasn’t worth it,” Benedict said.

Andrew only raised an eyebrow in reply.  He looked like he was in pain.  Part of Benedict wished he could do more to take the pain away, but another part took some satisfaction in his brother’s condition.

“She never loved either of us.”

“How do you know?”

Benedict poked the fire with a stick.  He glanced at Andrew.  “I read her diary.”

“That wasn’t a nice thing to do.”

“It was years ago, but I remember every word.”  Benedict had a good memory.  “The whole time she was going with you or me she was trying to go with this guy named Joe Tison.”

“Wasn’t he the guy she married?”

“I don’t know.  I never heard.”

“No.  No, it wasn’t.  It was Howard Tison.  She married Joe’s brother.”

***

This is both “white room syndrome” and “talking head”.  The two are both the result of insufficient details.  White room syndrome is the effect of feeling like the characters are sitting around in a white room.  They have so little contact with the world around them and so little description of it that they could be anywhere.  Talking head is where the characters seem to be disembodied.  It makes it much harder to see them as real characters.

Let’s try the exact same scene again, only with more details.

.

****

“She wasn’t worth it,” Benedict said.  He gave a sidelong look at his brother, whose leg rested on the sleeping bag Benedict had carefully placed close enough to the fire for warmth and far enough for safety.

Andrew only raised one dark eyebrow in reply.  Under a mop of ebony hair, pain etched itself into his forehead, making washboard of wrinkles.  The wrinkles looked too deep to have come about recently, and didn’t go away when Andrew gazed into the yellow glow of the fire, his jaw tight.

Seven years and they still had not laid to rest the ghosts Samantha put between them.  Benedict wished he could smooth away his brother’s lines, yet smiled ruefully.  If he couldn’t forgive, then he deserved them.

For long moments they both huddled in their sleeping bags while the evergreen forest around them grew darker and colder, the air pungent in pine needles and tension.

“She never loved either of us,” Benedict said to the fire.

“How do you know?”  Andrew’s voice reflected the quiet of the night.

Benedict poked the fire with a stick.  He glanced at Andrew.  “I read her diary.”

“That wasn’t a nice thing to do.”  Andrew’s eyes narrowed with censure.

Benedict looked away, feeling guilty even after so many years.  Andrew had always been the noble one.  Not always practical, but always noble.

“It was years ago, but I remember every word.”  He could hardly forget the white, lined paper covered in swirls of cruel, black ink, her words having engraved themselves in his mind.  “The whole time she was going with either you or me she was chasing after this guy named Joe Tison.”

Andrew straightened up.  “Wasn’t he the guy she married?”

“I don’t know.  I never heard.”

“No.  No, it wasn’t.  It was Howard Tison.  She married Joe’s brother.”

They shared a bitter smile, a smile of brotherhood and understanding.

****

It gives you a better feel for who and where they are, doesn’t it?  But what if we had picked a different set of details.  Let’s try it again and see what could happen.
.

****

“She wasn’t worth it,” Benedict said, putting his chin out, though he didn’t really expect his brother to argue.

Andrew only raised a questioning eyebrow in reply.  The lime-green bedroll under him must have shifted because he winced, and rubbed the injured leg.  Benedict reached for the splint to check his work, but Andrew waved him away.

Always carelessly stoic, Andrew had the streeky-blond good looks of a beach bum.  In spite of the paint he must feel he looked around at the pine trees around them and breathed deeply, a hint of a smile on his face.

Benedict shook his head in grudging admiration.  He knew Andrew would never ask what he meant, probably didn’t want to hear it, but he had to say it anyway.  “She never loved either of us.”

“How do you know?”  Andrew betrayed himself with no hesitation.  He’d known what Benedict was talking about all along.

Benedict poked the fire with a stick.  He glanced at Andrew.  “I read her diary.”

“That wasn’t a nice thing to do.”  Slowly, a mischievous smile and twinkling eyes lit up his face.  Benedict tried not to smile back.

“It was years ago, but I remember every word.”  He remembered all right, and what she’d said still made his stomach clinch.  “The whole time she was going with either you or me she was angling for this guy named Joe Tison.”

“Wasn’t he the guy she married?”  Andrew leaned back on his elbows and looked into the deep, starry night, supremely unconcerned.

“I don’t know.  I never heard.”

Andrew sat up too quickly, making himself wince.  “No.  No, it wasn’t.  It was Howard Tison.  She married Joe’s brother.”

They stared at one another in stunned surprised.  Then Andrew started to laugh.  Benedict didn’t want to join him, but the longer his brother laughed, the harder it was to resist.  Soon they were howling, laughing until tear ran down their faces.

****
.

It’s the same dialogue.  You’d think the story would be the same either way.  And yet they come across very differently.

That is the power of details. 

.
Alice

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13 Comments »

  1. It is interesting to see how the story changes with a few small details. My problem, I think, is that I use too many. Mine are alway heavy in narrative. I feel like I need to set up every action in the scene. Good illustration Alice!

    Laurie

    Comment by Laurie — January 24, 2007 @ 10:20 am

  2. Laurie, go back and look at the details again. Every one of them was carefully selected for emotional impact. It isn’t enough to have details. You have to have the right details.

    Also notice that a lot of the “details” involved stage direction. That’s one kind of narrative you can have plenty of without putting off too many readers.

    Alice

    Comment by aliceaudrey — January 24, 2007 @ 10:27 am

  3. Yes, I think I see. In the three examples you didn’t really add or change a lot. But it did evoke different perceptions about the brothers. You also created somewhat of an environment without paragraphs of descriptions. Now, I need to go back to my chapter and see how I can do it although I’m not sure I can.

    Laurie

    Comment by Laurie — January 24, 2007 @ 11:55 am

  4. If I can do it, anyone can do it. Just think about what you want to get across, and keep an eye out for places where you can slip something in.

    Alice

    Comment by aliceaudrey — January 24, 2007 @ 12:09 pm

  5. I could probably be the poster child for “white room syndrome.” Not to mention the “talking head” thing. At least now I know my disease has a name. : )

    I love having an example of how something is supposed to work, and you’ve given some great ones for me to study and cogitate over.

    Thanks, Alice!

    Donna

    Comment by Donna — January 24, 2007 @ 2:28 pm

  6. Alice, Alice, Alice. You manage to write two interesting scenes and give us a straightforward writing lesson that was clear, concise, and beneficial. How do you manage to accomplish so much and make it look so effortless? You continue to raise the bar for all of us! 🙂

    Kelly

    Comment by Kelly — January 24, 2007 @ 6:03 pm

  7. This was very good. I’m one who tends to write it once first (lacking a lot of detail) and then adding them in when I revise. Three great examples.

    Bev

    Comment by Bev — January 24, 2007 @ 6:13 pm

  8. Donna, you can’t be the poster child. Even I can’t claim that distinction, and I wrote an entire 10 page story with nothing but dialogue. At the time, I thought it was good. 😀

    Come on, Kelly. It’s not like you’ve never seen me tearing my hair out over my self-imposed deadlines. Just wait until tax season gets into full swing. Then I’ll really be stressing.

    Thanks Bev. I’m just trying to make a point.

    Alice

    Comment by aliceaudrey — January 24, 2007 @ 7:39 pm

  9. Great examples!

    Comment by Pam Skochinski — January 24, 2007 @ 11:58 pm

  10. Thanks Pam

    Alice

    Comment by aliceaudrey — January 25, 2007 @ 1:53 am

  11. Great examples Alice! Ever thought of giving a workshop?

    Anastasia

    Comment by Anastasia — January 25, 2007 @ 7:49 am

  12. I just knew you were talking to me. LOL. Rather, you were trying pound something into my head.

    I’m just here to say that it’s one of the best craft posts I’ve seen in awhile.

    Comment by miladyinsanity — January 31, 2007 @ 9:31 am

  13. Anastasia, I’m hardly qualified to give a workshop on anything. I’m not even close to getting published. Seriously, I’m just mouthing off.

    May, hehehe. I thought I was being pretty gentle about it. I just wanted you to see what I was talking about.

    Alice

    Comment by aliceaudrey — January 31, 2007 @ 1:14 pm


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