Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Details That Imply The Bigger World

"What d'you mean, 'Leave it'?"

That's a line from the movie Gosford Park, and it's the first line spoken by one of the upstairs characters. I have the habit of letting a movie like this play in the background over and over again while I write, and so, in this case, I've probably watched Gosford Park hundreds of times. Whenever I heard this line, I thought I had missed something someone said before it. After all, doesn't it feel like we've jumped into the middle of a conversation?

What I realized was that this line was, indeed, the first line of the scene, but it implied the bigger world. It suggested that someone else had told the speaker to "leave" something, whatever that something was.

Details have the power to make the world bigger without actually describing the bigger world. This line of dialog implied that there had been a conversation before it. We can assume that the normal, "Hi. How are you?" has taken place, but that the director, Robert Altman, decided it wasn't worth his time or ours to have to watch it.

When we're writing, we can do the same thing. As we describe an object or scene, we can use the details of that description to create the bigger world that exists around what readers are actually seeing.

He walked in wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

This line describes someone and their clothing, but with only a few more words, we can give this character a lot more history.

He walked in wearing mud-covered jeans and a torn T-shirt.

With this, we know that the person who came in has been alive long before we've heard about him. Maybe he's just been beat up. Made he's just a rough-and-tumble type of guy. Either way, our experience is now of something larger than what it was before. Our story takes on a grander scale.

We can come up with other examples like this, and they don't always have to imply that time has passed.

The light through the stained glass windows made the apple look blue.

Technically, here, I'm describing an apple, but I've also used the same sentence to imply a church or something like a church.

When I am writing a scene, I try to enlarge my imagination and see the bigger picture before I crop it down. If a character is entering the room, think about where they have come from and what they were doing there. If you're describing an object, think about where it is located and how that location affects it. Our world is larger than what we are able to write down, but with a few well-placed details, we can still capture some of that vastness.


  1. Nice post. I don't think I could write with a movie going on in the background though. I would get distracted too easily. The point is well taken though.

  2. Agreed: well-placed details are effective.

  3. Eric, the trick is to watch it a hundred times. Then it just fades into the background. :) I've got about four movies that I watch over and over again. They all tend to be quiet movies like Gosford Park. I'm not saying you should try it.

  4. I flesh out mostly during revisions. If I detail like this a lot during first drafts, the writing goes so slowly that I start losing interest in the story. For main characters I include quite a bit of physical character description, but not so much while first-drafting as I'm not in I'm-a-reader-of-this-work-too mode--that doesn't happen till after a first draft (which I consider my draft only and I'm only in creator mode during), after which I imagine how the work would read to someone other than myself. Could a hypothetical reader easily see this, easily imagine that, empathize with this?

    I like your apple description, and, actually, I'd like to eat a--naturally--blue apple!

  5. Davin, I'm not sure if this is exactly on point, but I am rereading "The Namesake," and last night I was struck by one of Lahiri's use of details that did indeed convey so much more, from when the family is house hunting:

    "All of the houses belong to Americans. Shoes are worn inside, trays of cat litter are placed in the kitchens, dogs bark and jump when Ashima and Ashoke ring the bell."

    Those details, so otherwise mundane, when prefaced by "all of the houses belong to Americans" tell us so much about Ashima and Ashoke. It puts us instantly in their heads and tells us about cultural norms surrounding manners and cleanliness--without Lahiri having to tell us what the Indian couple thought or that they take off their shoes in their house,etc.

    Just so wonderfully handled in my opinion.

  6. Very cool post. I think I do this without really thinking about it, but now I'm going to be conscious of where my characters have come from and how to weave that into the "bigger world."

  7. He would have worn shorts, but Casper the Ghost had a better tan then he did, and he didn't want to frighten the unwary - I used this line to describe why a character was wearing long pants on a very hot day. For me, it should the reader that the character was very pale . . . and also had a sense of humor.

    Your post was great. I really think the little details are a very important part of the greater story - condensation on a glass, the way light spills in through a window, and all that other jazz.

    I think the details - little or big - truly make or break a book.


  8. Great examples, they really help to illustrate your point.

    Here's a link to a site of fiction writing advice called Casting the Bones. This article takes your Altman example a little bit further in regard to why you want to write a scene this way. It's a screenwriting technique called "Enter Late/Leave Early."

    And to take one example a step further and make it even more active:

    A clump of mud fell from his jeans and the flap of his torn shirt waved like a flag as he walked into the room.

    At some point you reach overkill, which I may have done here...but you should get the point: I took the adjectives "mud-covered" and "torn" and described them using verbs (fell, waved). To go even further, you can hear the dirt hitting the floor...Engage the senses to show what's going on.

  9. I love how you explained this concept. I'm really into photography and often - whether it's writing or photography - it's hard to remember not to crop before you see the whole picture. Thanks for the reminder! I love your example: Gosford Park.

  10. The details that imply the bigger world are what make the story come alive.

  11. I always like to give the idea that there's more going on than you're telling the reader. This is one very good way to do it.

  12. This is such an important element of any story. Well said. A reader likes to feel smart, challenged, enticed. Doing what you described allows them exactly that. Easier said than done, but worthy of our effort :D

  13. This is something I try very hard to achieve. When you're world-building from scratch (say, in sf&f), there's a danger of losing subtlety, because you can't leave as much to be inferred by the reader on the basis of a pre-existant shared culture. On the other hand, making the world feel like it stretches beyond the details on the page becomes all the more crucial to making it feel real.

  14. Justus, glad you agree!

    Reason Reanimator, I try to get into that same frame of mind when I'm writing a first draft, but I do find it quite challenging. I can't always get my internal critics to shut up, and those critics are built on what I think readers want, which I know I don't really know.

    I took a plant biochemistry class where I learned that a lot of the fruits and vegetables we eat today used to be more blue. Carrots and oranges, for example. I don't remember if apples fell into that same category.

    Jennifer, I think you're right. Those details you included are representative of so much more that Lahiri doesn't need to say. Her details always carry a lot of emotion for me, and maybe that's because of all the things they imply.

    ElanaJ, I think you're very lucky if this kind of things comes naturally to you. I've come to trust my natural instinct more and rely on them more as I gain experience. I think that's what makes each writer unique: they have different combinations of natural skills.

  15. Scott, Thanks so much for including some of your own writing! That's a really memorable example. Three months ago, I think I would have disagreed with you about the importance of little details. Now, I really do think they are key.

    Rick, those are great points. I've been trying to move things into actions. It's not something I do well. Thanks for posting up the website too!

    Shorty, I'm draw to stories that have a bunch of characters. I always love them. And, when you have a story that's big and complicated like that, you have to be very smart about which details you choose. You have to make a lot of decisions to avoid having your story take 1000 pages to tell.

    Lois, these details definitely make the world seem bigger!

    Scott, it gets tricky, doesn't it? I think it really engages your imagination much more when you try to complete the pictures of your stories so that you know what's not written.

    Tess, good point. Using this sort of detail also gets the reader more engaged.

    Thanks for chiming in, Tara. I wanted to say something about the importance of this kind of thing in sci-fi, but I just didn't have the experience to know for sure.


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