Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Telling Detail

by Beth Groundwater

Russian author Anton Chekov, 1860-1904, is often called one of the greatest short story writers in history. He is often quoted as saying that short fiction is "the casual telling of a nuclear experience in an ordinary life, rendered with immediate and telling detail." Much thought and discussion has gone into defining what a "telling detail" is, exactly, after he made that pronouncement, and writers have struggled for years to craft those telling details to include in their stories.

A telling detail is the description of some single aspect of an object, person, setting, or action that distills the very essence or uniqueness of what is being described. Upon reading the description of the telling detail, the reader knows what the author needs him or her to know, for the purposes of the story, about the described item. Also, the telling detail often reveals emotion and hidden meaning along with it.

I've recently finished the rough draft of Cataract Canyon, the third book in my RM Outdoor Adventures mystery series and have begun editing the chapters. I have multiple goals for my editing work, but one important goal is to make sure that I have telling details that pull my readers deeper into the story by making them feel they thoroughly know the characters, the setting, and the events in the book.

In describing characters, telling details can reveal what the characters are feeling at the moment, their underlying personality, what they do for a living, or how the POV character feels about them. For example, in the photo below, the age of the book, the lines and hair on the hand, and the way the hand grasps the book tells a lot about the character of the man pictured.

In another example, in the first chapter of Cataract Canyon, my river ranger/guide, Mandy Tanner, and her business partner and lover, Rob Juarez, are checking in clients for a multi-day rafting trip on the Colorado River that will go through Cataract Canyon. Two women step up to the counter, who have similar features but vary in age, so Mandy surmises they are mother and daughter.
Then comes the following sentence:

"Contrary to expectation, the daughter wore a loose T-shirt, and the mother’s V-necked stretch top clung to her curves and showed some cleavage."

What does this tell the reader about the characters? Maybe that the daughter is shy and not very confident of her body image. Also, the mother excessively displays her sexuality (this is a river trip, not a night out on the town) and may be on the prowl. Lastly, by Mandy noticing the difference, the reader gets a sense that Mandy doesn't approve of the mother's outfit, because it is "contrary to expectation."

In describing setting, the writer wants o include telling details that make readers feel they are there, experiencing the environment right along with the characters. In Cataract Canyon, early the next morning after checking in the clients, the trip begins with transporting the clients and rafts to the river. Here's how I describe the vehicles:

"The vehicles sat with full gas tanks and engines running, so heaters could warm the interiors. The exhaust steam rising around the dark hunks of steel made Mandy think of hunkered-down dinosaurs, with the prehistoric-looking backdrop of Moab’s looming sandstone formations in the background."

From the description, the reader knows that the morning is cool. The use of the words "dinosaurs" and "prehistoric" are meant to deliberately evoke a sense of the primitive, wild country and geologically rich canyons the travelers will explore. Also, the description is meant to be foreboding and anticipatory, implying that something dangerous is going to happen on this trip.

As a final example of "telling detail," I'll give a description of an event, in this case, unloading the vehicles and carrying everything to the river. Rather than just describing what happened, I wanted to show some emotions and client behaviors that would be important later. Here's what I wrote:

"The whole Anderson family, except for Alex, treated the guides like porters at the put-in. The five of them stood off to the side, talking about the ugly structures of the Potash mine just upstream and taking photos. The others did all of the work, lugging gear and rafts between the vehicles and the river bank. The Andersons didn’t even carry their own personal dry bags down to the river."

The description conveys Mandy's dismay over how the Andersons are treating the guides and shows their disdain for not only the guides, but the environment around them. The use of the word "lugging" shows that the work is hard, and by mentioning gear, rafts, and dry bags, I convey the sense that a lot of stuff had to be moved. This is another aspect of the telling detail, to convey the essence of meaning in as brief a description as possible, so you're not boring the reader.

In the next few weeks, I'll be whittling away at my descriptions, trying to hone them into the evocative shapes that I need. And, I hope my readers will appreciate my efforts when the final book is published. I know that when I read an especially good passage of telling details in a book, I often go back and re-read the passage, savoring it and teasing out how much emotion and information the author crammed into it. A small, well-written "telling detail" can hold as much beauty in the words as the delicate butterfly in the hand in photo below.

Do you have a favorite example of the use of "telling detail" that you'd like to share with the rest of us?


Unknown said...

Excellent piece, Beth. The devil really is in the details, and judging by your passages, you have have him under control! Thanks for the reminder.

Susan M. Boyer said...

Great blog, Beth! I've always thought Flannery O'Connor an expert in just this type of description. I could try to paraphrase specific examples, but I'd botch them badly. Her short story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is full of them. I wish I had it in front of me.

I'll echo Shelia--thanks for the reminder! :)

Gloria Alden said...

Something for all writers to think about, Beth. I like to think I add those telling details, too, but maybe I need to go back and see if I add enough of them.

Lois Winston said...

Great post, Beth! I especially like where you said, "In the next few weeks, I'll be whittling away at my descriptions, trying to hone them into the evocative shapes that I need."

One of the biggest mistakes too many authors make is bogging down their prose with too much detail and description to the point where they wind up with paragraph after paragraph of filler. Most of the time, less is more when it comes to details. One well-chosen word or phrase can be so much more evocative than a dozen sentences of description.

Kimiko&Mom said...

I enjoyed the post, Beth. I also agree with Lois that many authors, sometimes first authors, other times the much-published, insert too many details that end up slowing the plot and making that "Telling Detail" hard to find. As I edit my own work, I often need to delete some description, while adding something elsewhere. Too many of us describe what the characters see, hear, and smell -- but what the can feel (with their fingers, that is) can be just as important in creating a scene. And in some scenes, that "feeling" sense may be the telling detail.

Thank you, Beth, for a great read.
Lori Orser

Kathleen Ernst said...

Good luck with the revision, Beth! I always think this phase is fun...taking a draft and working to make it better. Nice post.

Robin Allen said...

Great post, just in time for the fifth full run-through of my book.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks, Sheila, Susan, Gloria, Lois, Lori, Kathleen, and Robin!

I'll hae to read that short story by Flannery O'connor, Susan. There's nothing I enjoy better than a well-crafted short story. Brokeback Mountain just blew me away!

Lois, I agree that less is often more when it comes to descriptions. It's often better to let the reader fill in the holes from their own imagination.

Lori, not only is what the characters feel with their skin important, but also what they feel with their gut and autonomic nervous system.

Robin, I really wish I had time for five full run-throughs of this manuscript before I turn it in. I know it would be better than the three or four that I think I'll get in. Maybe while acquisition editor Terri Bischoff is looking at it, I'll do the fifth run-through on my own and merge those changes with the ones she requests.

jenny milchman said...

I love this concept, and your examples. I have to think of how it presents itself in what I write.

Inkpot said...

I believe voice is in the details one chooses to use.