No detail in fiction is ever truly random.
Therein lies the difference between fiction and real life; if I walk down a street I’m obliged to take in everything my mind registers, whether I want to or not, but the fiction author picks and chooses the detail most relevant to the reader.
When choosing detail, the storyteller:
- evokes an atmosphere
- paints a much wider setting with minimal clues to reader
- might introduce or reinforce imagery (e.g. a stormy sky in the gothic novel foretells calamity)
In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes of the ‘Flaubertian Randomness of Detail’.
So the modern reader accepts a few things without question:
- The narrator notices stuff that ordinary people walking around would not notice, and can even make imagery out of mundane detail.
- For some reason, the narrator has gone to the trouble of writing it down.
- The narrator is able to pick and choose the detail which is relevant, unlike the rest of us, who walk down a street and take everything in, without any context for story. What we see when we walk down a street may well set off a chain of thoughts, but we’re not in full control of that chain.
‘The reader is happy enough to efface the labor of the writer in order to believe two further fictions: that the narrator was somehow “really there”, and that the narrator is not really a writer.’
– James Wood, from How Fiction Works, p55