Okay, here’s the thing. I got carried away in my post about the detail hunt. When I started writing it, I just wanted to write about how hard it was to catch details and maybe generate a discussion about where all the good ones were hiding and how other people came up with details.
I didn’t plan on writing about meaning, just about how to end up with a stack of index cards, each one bearing a detail, that I could thumb through when I started writing something new. So you see, I didn’t go into enough detail about the cards. In fact, I’m not even sure I mentioned them.
However, now I want to write about meaning.
The Oxford American Dictionary defines detail as:
1a: “a small or subordinate particular.”
1b: “such a particular, considered (ironically) to be unimportant.”
2a: “small items or particulars (esp. in an artistic work) regarded collectively.”
Details are like thermoses; they work both ways. As in,
That’s just a detail OR it’s all in the details.
So how does something that can be defined as unimportant acquire meaning?
Sue William Silverman wrote in Fearless Confessions:
“Maybe I’d find it easier to write if I were more aware of the meaning in my day-to-day life. But I’m not. Only when I write do I discover what my story means, what my metaphors are. In college, the maroon scarf was only a scarf!”
Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction:
“A detail is concrete if it appeals to one of the five senses; it is significant if it also conveys an idea or a judgment or both…The windowsill was shedding flakes of fungus-green paint is concrete and also conveys the idea that the paint is old and suggests the judgment that the color is ugly.”
What we want is a detail that tells us something, either immediately or later. This is why it’s often referred to as “the telling detail.” A detail is not “just a detail” when it goes to work for you.
On Wednesday I received a critique of a story from one of the people in my writing group. She suggested I delete a line about a coat because “it didn’t add to the story.” I thought, good point. Then I thought, I wonder why I put it in there–twice. With Monday’s post in mind, I thought maybe the solution is not deleting it but making it work for me–making it produce the echo I was writing about when I had intended to write about a stack of index cards.
This is one of the things I’ll be watching for as I start polishing my novel. That’s one of the talents I love most about writers like Anne Tyler … all the little details that create such a rich world.
Linda, Anne Tyler is so good with details. Opening Ladder of Years to the first page, the “rubber-banded clump” of green onions just leaps off the page.
It takes a rubber band to keep those onions together. What does it take to keep us together?
Amazing, isn’t it?
Not being properly educated, my biggest regret is that I often miss the metaphors for the theme of a book. You cited her first one in that book, didn’t you?
Well, it’s interesting. You mentioned Anne Tyler. So I pulled that novel (you know it’s my favorite) off the shelf with the intention of mentioning a detail from the first page in my reply to you. That detail was already underlined. Only as I was typing up my reply did it occur to me that even that seemingly random detail meant something.
You know, this makes me think I could be weaving in details in my novel forever. Oh my!
There is a lot to say about details and there meaning… Having the meaning of detail is essential for a writer. As a painter of meaning, we must find the best and meaning details for every essential part of our story. We describe the feelings of the characters we choose to put on a scene by writing what they are doing. What we write is still what the reader will read and interpreted in is one’s way. The color white or red or blue won’t have the same meaning for every reader around the world. We must find the most significant meaning detail like a painter or even a musician. This is not easy for a writer…
Sometimes, clutters of words on lines all over the pages are my nightmare… Where are the meaning details words? Which one should I cut or repeat? To cut or not to cut, is this the question I should ask myself every time I write and rewrite a story?
Often the answer is yes.
The metaphor still the best way for me to illustrate the meaning of details in a story. And justice for all… the world words.
P.S. I love the picture you have in your writing room: Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt by Georges-Jules Victor Clairin.
Mireille, Merci pour tes bons mots. C’est vrai qu’il y a beaucoup a dire a pro pos des details. Probablement j’ai deja trop dit, et les gens qui lisent ce blog sont prets pour un nouvel sujet!
C’est aussi vrai que c’est de temps en temps difficile a distinguer les mots qui veulent dire quelque chose des mots qui n’ont rien a dire. Et voici le truc: des fois nous qui ecrivons les mots ne voient pas au fond de leur possibilites!
J’adore aussi ce tableau de Sarah!
Votre français est excellent. Je ne couperai aucun mot… Ce serait une tragédie digne de Sarah.
Merci de souligner l’importance et la profondeur des mots que nous écrivons.
Apres la soiree chez Linda, j’ai pense que “tu” etait plus convenable que “vous.” : ) Pardon si non.
I often wonder why details don’t add to a story. In my beginning writing, I often added clever details about characters that were more affectations than true details coming from their core.
Now, when I write, I really have to ask myself if the detail is a result of the writer intruding. Each detail must come from the narrative voice, rather than the writer’s voice. To me, this means it is imbued with the same mood, and written in the same tone.
I like the quote from Janet Burroway defining concrete details as appealing to one of the five senses. I think most everyone can write a concrete detail. It is much more difficult to write what she describes as a significant detail because the idea/judgement must spring from the narrative voice.
It is difficult to hear that a detail doesn’t add to the story. I’ve found, for me, that the majority of these unnecessary details are a result of me trying to sound too writerly instead of listening to what my characters would observe as important.
Thank you for this discussion on details and meaning.
Thank you, Teresa, for your substantive comment. As you can see from the title of the post, I often get carried away with the detail itself rather than what it adds to the writing! I also appreciate your additional thoughts on Janet Burroway’s quote. The significance of the detail is the tricky part, but so often that’s where the layers of the story can be felt.
Our lives are made up of small details and so our writing should be as well. It’s a fine tightrope between the details that create a world and those that clutter it.
I love the notion that a detail should appeal to all the senses….
Lindsay, great point about the fine line between details that create a world and those that clutter it. Just like life, as you said!
I love when my writing group can point out something that meant nothing to them and didn’t add to the story, because then I can weigh whether I want to expand on it so that I improve it or trash it, wondering why I put it there in the first place
Tricia, yes, it’s such an interesting question how and why in the world stuff ends up in our stories in the first place.
Of course, you can say “tu” to me. As a French Canadian, a Québecoise, I am a little bit “vieille France”. It’s a old fashion way to show are respect to the other. Today, young people don’t bother with this kind of details, this kind of tame… They just past in from of you everywhere and don’t even try to excused themselves.
No. I exaggerate… First, there a lot of people who still uses the “vouvoiement” in good society. Second, It’ take time for me to say “tu” to everyone. In english, the difference is very subtle. It’s no clearly defined. May be it is a question of meaning.
This detail is important! Bring back us to the meaning of your post.
Je te souhaite une excellente soirée de lecture et d’écriture. my friend.
Thanks, Mireille! By the way, I spent a summer in Quebec City years ago, taking courses at Laval. I loved it, especially the outdoor concerts with Gilles Vigneault, Pauline Julien, and Claude Gauthier. The mass transit workers were on strike, and everyone was hitch hiking to get around. It was such fun.
Some many thoughts here! It is great.
“des fois nous qui ecrivons les mots ne voient pas au fond de leur possibilites”. [Translation: Sometimes we who are writing the words don’t see to the bottom of their possibilities.]
I love this, Cynthia. It is what I love about words, the possibilities they carry and create. I think that as writers, each detail should carry weight. Yet, we also have o expect that it will not be felt by all who read.
PS. As an anglophone in
Quebec, I call everyone vous.
Thanks for your comment, Jennifer.
Thanks for the tip about “vous” too. I would have thought here in North America the “vous” would be almost never used. If I knew this once, I had definitely forgotten it.
I love, love, love this little French lesson on my blog!