Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog
I’ve promised my writing students that every Sunday morning I would talk about an aspect of the writing craft. So here’s my offering for February 19: the God of Story lies in the details. That means kicking the slothful habit of using vague, general language. For instance, something, somewhere, somehow are vague and general. So is the adjective little, which Graham Greene considered sentimental.
Here’s another example: a novice might think that “big” is the best word to describe the insides of the whale that swallowed Jonah for three days. But big is vague and general. In fact, big is one of the most general words in the English language. Relatively speaking, mostly everything is big compared to everything else that’s smaller. So if a writer uses the word big to describe the whale in the Biblical story of a man being swallowed by a fish, that writer isn’t doing their job. But if the writer describes how the whale’s intestines smelled to Jonah, there’s no need to use the adjective big. The concrete, specific detail about the intestines powerfully conjures up Jonah’s predicament. Namely, the whale is so big the stink of its intestines make it hard for Jonah to breathe.
In his novel, A Widow for One Year, John Irving calls this kind of detail, “the chosen detail, not a remembered one.” Irving argues through the voice of one of his characters, that the best fictional detail was the detail that should have defined the character or the episode or the atmosphere. “Novels were not arguments; a story worked, or it didn’t on its own merits,” Irving writes in his book. “What does it matter if a detail was real or imagined? What mattered was that the detail seemed real, and that it was absolutely the best detail for the circumstances.”
Flaubert called it using “le mot juste.” In the writing workshops I give, students sometimes respond to the need for details by providing a laundry list of adjectives that describe a person or situation in their story. Laundry lists of descriptive adjectives are better than pages of vague, general language. But they’re still not what is needed. Choosing the most characteristic detail is always better, and that can take more time, but it’s worth it, for both you and your reader.