Writer’s Corner: The Devil is in the Detail

I was chatting to an old friend the other day. We were sat outside at a cafe people watching when a motorbike revved nearby. I just smiled and said “And now it’s summer” and she looked at me oddly. It took me a moment to realise my comment would have meant nothing to her. I grew up on the Isle of Man. On island, in June every year there is a biking festival (the TT). It signals the start of the summer season on the island. The whole place comes alive. And as much as it bored me as a child (I had, continue to have and imagine will never cease to have less-than no interest in two wheeled sports) and became a pain in the ass as an adult (to the locals TT is, roads closed at random hours of the day with no notice but meaning you cannot get home, motorbikes parked everywhere because apparently for those two weeks traffic rules don’t apply and everything is twice as expensive as it was the week before and the week afterwards), the sound of a motorbike revving will forever mean summer to me. It is hard-wired into me. It is part of my identity.

The episode got me thinking. As a writer, I’m always looking for ways to make my characters more dynamic, real and relatable to my audience. And the more characters I write, the more I am realising that it isn’t the big things that define the characters. They are the broad brush strokes. Those are the bits any (half) decent author can pull together. It’s the little things that make them real. The tiny little details that give them a realistic depth. It stops them from just existing in the here and now, and gives them rooting in their own pasts. And that is beyond just the backstory you need to make the plot work. It’s the small little things that speak volumes about their characters.

The single most powerful question an author can ask is “why”. Every single thing your character does should be proceeded with a grilling. “Why is she doing thing?” “Why is she thinking that?” ” Why didn’t she do this instead?” The more you question, the stronger the character will grow both to you but more importantly to your reader.

It extends to metaphors too. I’ve noticed with increasing regularity as the book market is getting flooded with lazy writers who have even lazier editors working for them, that metaphors have become about describing stuff with no care for the character viewing it. For me, metaphors are a powerful tool to give your reader a deeper insight into your character without trying. Whether you have chosen to write in first, second or third person and in the past, present or future tense, the story will always be someone’s story. They may not be telling it directly but it is their voice that the reader is hearing. Let me take an example from Fifty Shades. Here is her quote:

“I feel the colour in my cheeks rising again. I must be the colour of The Communist Manifesto”

And here’s the problem. I think we can all surmise what is happening in this scene. Last I checked, Anastasia was not a politician, a commentator on politics nor the book particularly politically driven. Excuse me for being blunt, but if I was where she was, I promise you, the communist manifesto would be the last thing on my mind. Commentators make fun of this quote and it is for a good reason. Because it sounds ridiculous. Particularly written in present tense, I think most readers would agree, this is not how they expected the metaphor to end. James had the chance here to help us see the world through Anastasia’s eyes but instead she’s gone with the first red thing she could think of. And herein, we see my problem with this new use of metaphor. Yes, the above quote is perfectly descriptive. We can see exactly what James was getting at. But for me, it is a wasted opportunity. For me, the art of writing a novel is saying as much as possible in as few words as possible. And that means making each detail count. Every word written should further the story. Description, as much as it is necessary, does not further the story on its own. It can only further it if it is presented in such a way as it gives the reader something more i.e. seeing the world through the protagonists eyes (e.g. character development), story mirroring (e.g. using environment to reflect character inner emotions), tone setting (e.g. Dickens is rather renowned for using weather to set the mood for each section of his story). The above quote is description at its purest and driest. How about instead:

“I feel the colour in my cheeks rising again, until I am sure I am as red as the roses that I know he will never give me.”

Roses are synonymous with romance which automatically puts the reader in the right mindset for the moment.  Roses are a romantic gesture, by noting that she knows he will never give her them illustrates her knowledge of their relationship (which is very relevant in that moment). It gives a sense of mild longing that a part of her wishes that he would be an ordinary guy who shows affection in ordinary ways but it also shows that she knows he isn’t which adds to that background feeling of risk and danger. And I am sure there are a hundred other ways that original quote could be improved.

Our job as a writer is to bring every element of our story to life. We need to question every word we place on the page. A reader should be able to pull any random sentence from those 300 odd pages and we as writers should be able to justify every word and why it  made it to the final cut.. The devil is in the detail. It is our job to make him dance.

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