First, a quick shout out to my readers. I appreciate each and every one of you and thank you for playing a small role in my quest to be published. Cavernous is still going strong.
I wish I could remember who told me this. It might have been my good friend Kimberly Grenfell, a.k.a. Devon Winterson.
It’s the small details that make the story.
Lately, I’m finding that more and more to be true. But a lot of times, we miss out on the small details because the big picture in a story is so exciting/overwhelming/larger than life.
The above picture is a favorite from years ago, one of my first documentations of my daughter’s uncanny ability to destroy a room within a matter of minutes. If you examine closely, you can see that her destruction follows a specific path from my kitchen through my living room to the front hall. It might be easy to retrace that path and come up with the story of all the things she’d done along the way.
If memory serves me right, I was folding the laundry right beside her and came out to this mess. It took about ten minutes, tops. I walked out, gaped, snapped the picture, and shook my head at the chaos.
My in-laws joke with us sometimes. They say, “Y’all blame everything on little Dana.” And it’s true–if there’s a mess in my house, she’s the first one I’m going to turn to. But just for kicks, I zoomed into the picture to see if I could figure out what she was thinking when she made the mess.
I saw: My son Matt’s shoes, his little cardboard/aluminum foil “creation,” paper plates, the foam letters he loved to play with–maybe, just maybe she wasn’t the only culprit. The details tell a completely different story than first glance. And I think that’s true in novel writing, too. I always start a chapter with brainstorming and freewriting, which generally leads me to a skeleton scene that consists mostly of dialogue. What I’ve learned is that the fill-in details I choose to add can completely change the tone or intensity of a scene. They can make a likeable character suddenly heinous or a villain seem tolerable.
I’ve been focusing on ways I can make my writing more believable and character emotions more compelling. In my quest, I stumbled on this blog post from Author Magazine from the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association: Believable Fiction.
I love this quote:
Our lives are not led in the physical—that is, we are not pinballs bouncing from event to event. We are not a collection of limbs and organs generating a series of thoughts, but rather a series of thoughts compelling a collection of limbs and organs. What readers always seek in fiction is what it feels like to be alive, not what it looks like to be alive, because the feeling is in the end the only reality we ever know, because the feeling reality, which exists within the invisible self, is all we have that is ours and ours alone.
I wonder if my brainstorming might be more effective as a series of thoughts compelling our characters rather than characters generating thoughts. In other words, the thoughts come first, including a decision about the emotions I want to convey. Then, the actions to show that emotion–slamming things for anger, dropping things for shock. Next, the objects from the setting–the papers that are shoved off a desk, the priceless artifact that’s dropped. Finally, the character attached, who is the kind of character that would behave in such a way. Hmm… Guess I’ll experiment and let you know.
I was critiquing a writing piece a few weeks ago and the person had an action-packed chase sequence. It wasn’t terrible, but the sequence happened over a three day span and the characters didn’t make any stops to eat or sleep.
Which was… UNBELIEVABLE. Let me tell you, if someone was after me and I had to run, my almost forty-year-old body is in trouble. I can make it about a quarter of a mile before I’m panting like a dog on a hot summer day. I’mresourceful–I might be able to trip my stalker and knock them into a mailbox or something, or grab a large brick from someone’s flowerbed and aim where the sun don’t shine. No way a story written about me could justify a character going through a three day chase scene like that.
The point is, it’s important to think about the reality of a character physically being able to handle the challenges we put them in.
I remember reading about the jump Tris made in Veronica Roth’s Divergent (which I loved), and being a little disappointed in the impact description.
I hit something hard. It gives way beneath me and cradles my body. The impact knocks the wind out of me, and I wheeze, struggling to breath again. My arms and legs sting.
The physics teacher in me felt like there might be some rope burn from the net, maybe a few bloody scrapes. Maybe she’d wobble her first few steps or something? I mean, I know that “hottie” Four frees her from the net, but then she goes on the tour, and there’s no physical remnants of her dauntless acts.
So, the other day I had a conversation with my sis-in-law about an upcoming trip we’d like to take with the kids–an eight mile hike. She advised me to prep for the trip, cautioning that it would be difficult for an average person to just jump in on a hike like that without any training.
Makes me think about the characters in my story–a teenage girl, on the run, hiking four or five miles off-trail. I’ve added all these setting details, but I’ve basically just taken them from point A to point B. They rest, they sleep, but I’ve forgotten to add those touches of realism–aching feet, blisters, sheer exhaustion–that would keep my character from seeming larger than life.
So many tiny little details to think about when writing a story.
Going back now to reread the whole thing and look for places to add sore elbows and feet 🙂