Well, hello! After two weeks of meandering toward this topic, we’re finally talking about significant concrete detail. It’s funny--I always thought of significant concrete detail as this fundamental concept, like, oh, okay, I need to describe things, check and check. It’s one of the first things I studied in Introduction to Creative Writing, and although it’s stuck with me all this time, I don’t actually think I really understood it until recently.
Because it’s important, but it’s actually not simple at all. Every time I tried to write about significant concrete detail, I realized I first had to write about something else. Scene and summary. Sensory detail and abstraction. My rule of three (but not always three) things. Don’t worry, though, we’re going to break it all down together.
First, let’s clarify what I mean by detail. In my mind, a detail is a description of something in the scene, usually a part of the environment, a character, or an action. In this definition, details aren’t summary, nor are they dialogue or thoughts. Including a detail would be talking about that red chair in the corner or about that dancer moving across the stage, but the backstory of the chair or the dancer’s internal monologue.
Then, significance. For something to be significant, I think, it must be relevant to the story you’re telling. It must contribute, in some way, to the forward motion of the narrative, to the development of the character(s), to the atmosphere of a scene, to the conflict, to the stakes, etc. For example, let’s look at this passage from Emily St. John Mandel’s adult literary post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven, wherein one of the main characters, Kirsten, is describing her backpack and the few belongings in it (pg. 66):
Her backpack was child-size, red canvas with a cracked and faded image of Spider-Man, and in it she carried as little as possible: two glass bottles of water that in a previous civilization had held Lipton Iced Tea, a sweater, a rag she tied over her face in dusty houses, a twist of wire for picking locks, the ziplock bag that held her tabloid collection and the Dr. Eleven comics, and a paperweight.
Everything is significant here. The backpack (“small,” “child-size,” “with a cracked and faded image of Spider-Man”) tells us first that Kirsten doesn’t need many belongings, because they will fit in such a small bag, and second, that although she is an adult walking the ruins of human civilization, she’s also still clinging to her past and the childhood that ended, essentially, at the same time the world did.
The list itself tells us something about her, too. She’s economical. She carries what she needs to survive but not much more. And she has the ability to survive on very little.
Finally, the last two things she carries, a tabloid and comics collection and a paperweight, not only tell us that Kirsten is fascinated by and years for the world she never really got to know, but they also tether her post-apocalyptic storyline to the two other storylines in the novel: that of a lead actor in a pre-apocalypse production of King Lear and that of a paparrazo-turned-EMT during the flu outbreak that annihilated most of the global population.
I think this is a good time to talk about My Rule of Three (But Not Always Three) Things, which is that everything you put on the page must fulfill at least two or three narrative purposes. They can immerse the reader in the scene, sure, (that’s one), but they also have to create atmosphere, ratchet up the tension, reveal character, generate conflict, increase the stakes, develop theme, etc. If something (a detail, a bit of dialogue, anything) isn’t doing this story work, then it can probably be cut or exchanged for something that will pull more weight.
If you count the meanings we’ve already discussed (two for the backpack, three for the list itself, two for the collection and paperweight), the above passage from Station Eleven already accomplishes seven things. But we can also examine each detail individually to see how much it accomplishes. The “glass bottles of water that in a previous civilization had held Lipton Iced Tea” is a long phrase for what could have been just “bottles,” “glass bottles,” or “Lipton Iced Tea bottles,” but the long and slightly stilted phrasing tells us that perhaps Kirsten doesn’t actually remember what Lipton Iced Tea is, or even what iced tea tastes like, so there this also this disconnect between her/her current world and her memory/her old world. The “red” of the backapck, in contrast, doesn’t contribute nearly as much. Different details can do varying amounts of work, but overall, this single sentence tells us maybe a dozen things we need to know about the story. Everything does more than one job. Everything contributes more than one thing to the storytelling.
Now, before we get into concreteness, I’d like to quickly dip into the difference between sensory detail and abstraction. Sensory detail is, as you might expect, detail that evokes the five senses (smell, touch, sight, sound, taste). A peppery scent on the air. A velvety sky. A howl in the bones. These are sensory. You can almost smell/feel/hear them. Abstraction, on the other hand, is more vague. Abstractions are often emotions (love, fury, distaste, consternation), and by themselves, they often rely on a reader’s existing ideas and expectations rather than generating or evoking new ones, so they can lack the power and originality of sensory details and can come off as cliche.
(This isn’t to say not to use abstractions at all. As I mentioned in my post on writing advice, I dislike writing dogma and prefer to figure out how to use different writing tools in effective ways. As a tool, abstraction can work really well in conjunction with sensory details, for example. Do what’s best for your story!)
Okay, so, to return to our exploration of significant concrete detail, concrete details are ones that are sensory. They put the reader in the middle of a scene and invite them to feel, see, and hear along with the characters. Let’s take another paragraph from Station Eleven, in which Kirsten and her friend August are on guard after having left a creepy cult town. At this point, they think they’ve heard something in the forest (pg. 136):
August and Kirsten set off as quickly and quietly as possible in the direction of the sound. The forest was a dark mass on either side, alive and filled with indecipherable rustlings, shadows like ink against the glare of the moonlight. An owl flew low across the road ahead. A moment later there was a distant beating of small wings, birds stirred from their sleep, black specks rising and wheeling against the stars.
Instead of using summary to tell us that the characters are on edge (abstraction) because they’re afraid (also abstraction) they’re being stalked, the author instead uses significant concrete detail.
There’s this focus on sight (or lack thereof): “dark,” “shadows,” “glare,” and “black.” The simile “like ink” feels tactile to me, that particular cool fluidity of spilled ink, but that, too, is about the impenetrability of the night.
And there’s an emphasis on sound as well: “indecipherable rustlings,” “distant beating of small wings.” I’d add “birds stirred from their sleep” too, because the repeated “whirr” sound of the words “birds” and “stirred” also evokes a particular small, fast sound.
To put it all together, these concrete details are significant, because they create both atmosphere and tension. In this scene, the characters are unable to see very far in the dark woods, but because of the smallness of the sounds, the things in the woods feel very close. It’s unsettling, knowing they’re not far from possible threats but not knowing exactly where those threats are. The question, Has the cult come after them? doesn’t even need to be asked, because it’s already evoked more powerfully in these details. Kirsten and August are thinking it. The reader is thinking it. We’re all crouched in the dark, together, listening and wondering what’s out there. *chef’s kiss*
Next week: SPACE TO BREATHE. I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of emptiness in the creative process. The necessity of white space on the page. The gaps in which we make meaning. Breathe with me next Sunday at tracichee.com and/or post your own responses with the hashtag #workandprocess. Inhale. Exhale. You’ve got this. <3
Work and Process is a year-long journey of exploring and reflecting on the artistic process, craft, and working in a creative field. Each Sunday, I’ll post some thoughts, wonderings, explanations, and explorations on writing and creativity, and by the end of it, I hope to have 52 musings, examinations, meanderings, discoveries, bits of joy or inquisitiveness or knowledge to share. In each post, I’ll also include a topic for the following week, so if you happen to be inspired to question/wonder at/consider your own work and process, you’re welcome to join me. We’ll be using the #workandprocess hashtag across all social media platforms, and I hope we find each other to learn and connect and transform on our creative wanderings.