Writing Secrets: The significance of detail
I’m a great believer in the power of detail in creative writing. Carefully observed specific details can transform a manuscript and bring it vividly to life.
That’s why I was fascinated by this detail, picked up in a manuscript, and the effect it had on me. The protagonist heads for a bar when a man bumps into him hard on the steps leading up to the entrance. The protagonist thinks him vaguely familiar, but isn’t sure where he could have met him.
Something’s going to happen between them, right? The man on the steps is bound to have some impact on the protagonist’s life. Except that he doesn’t. He never appears again and, for me, that is a problem.
Readers are clever. I’m always urging our writing students not to underestimate them. We’re primed to notice significant details and, as with Chekhov’s gun, we do expect them to return. It feels as though something has been set up, and we’re dying for a pay-off.
In a recent writing class, one of our participants wrote a scene in the course of which the clouds rolled in, obscuring the sun and threatening rain. Now … that detail is a little different, isn’t it? It could be that something will happen that has to do with the rain and the dim light. It could also be, though, that the darkened sky and grey light simply create a mood and give us a sense of the environment.
We are alerted to the fact that the clouds might be significant, but we don’t feel unsatisfied if all they do is create the texture of the world and the mood of the day. If two men leave the bar, arms slung across shoulders, faces slack, trailing an off-key rendition of “Ole, ole, ole, ole”, we likewise would not feel unsatisfied. We would simply wonder about his choice of bar.
It is the personal quality of the interaction that makes it significant. The man doesn’t add textural detail to the scene since he isn’t described in any way. But he bumps hard into the protagonist – and he is vaguely familiar. Those two aspects make him a significant detail – and one that is bound to return.
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