How To Write Mystery

The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.

– Ken Kesey

Mystery is the secret spice of all compelling books. It is the unexpected and yet perfectly fitting element; when it appears its rightness is palpable, and yet often just beyond the reach of easy explanation. Why does it feel so right? We can’t quite put our fingers on it.

Another reason mystery is less talked about, I think, is because many people meet this fascinating, fleeting sense of a meaning almost grasped, a music almost heard, and conclude it is a failure in themselves and in others to fully comprehend a book. This is not so.

Conceptual layers, conceptual depth, is what creates nuanced and interesting books. The elusive intellectual feeling of mystery comes from our minds’ effort to compare multiple conceptual frameworks, like looking through layers of tracing paper to see the one image those layers create. It’s intellectual exercise, and it’s fun. And it means you’re doing it right.

Mystery is what draws us back to a book again and again; it is what makes any work of art more than the sum of its parts.

Chronicle Books

how to write mystery

What Is A Mystery Story?

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Tips For Writing Melodrama

Melodrama is often used as an insult but, used properly, has its place in good storytelling. Here are some tips for writing melodrama.

What Is Melodrama?

Melodrama is the technique of revealing reality by concentrating on the ends of the spectrum rather than the middle: the remarkable rather than the ordinary.

Melodrama is about extremes of any kind. Melodrama is designed to:

  1. rouse strong emotions
  2. invoke implicit shared attitudes
melodrama from pretty little liars
A take-the-piss commentary of how melodrama is used (to great effect, I might add) in Pretty Little Liars

Pejoratively, melodrama refers to stories in which the writer tries to make the reader feel something but overdoes it and thus fails. This isn’t entirely fair use, because sometimes the writer WANTS the audience to enjoy the spectacle of characters getting all emotional without involving the audience in the drama. Melodrama can be harnessed deliberately in order to let an audience enjoy a story in a different way (from straight drama).

Why Use Melodrama In Your Writing?

Because of its heightened, exaggerated reality, melodrama lends itself easily to symbolism, allegory, and surrealism.

Surrealism is a different but related kind of exaggeration whereby the meanings implicit in objects, people, or events become more luminous and accessible than meanings normally are in the chaotic muddle of our everyday world.

Sometimes visionary, heightened reality is the most real of all, because all the transitory, trivial details have been stripped away to reveal the fundamental essence of things.

There’s a reason soap operas are shown in the middle of the day — no one needs genuine emotion at that time of day. Soap operas are melodramatic because they are designed to be a diversion, not a catharsis.

The Setting Of Melodramas

Melodramas make their heroes pawns in cities which symbolise the originating problem for the hero rather than the end of the hero’s activity. The hero is a conscious agent and a conflict between morality and the violation of established laws is developed.

Symbolism.org

A feature of melodramatic settings is often darkness contrasted with light. A lot of the scenes will probably take place at night.

Use of colour palette in the melodramatic TV series Riverdale promotional material makes the most of this contrast:

The dark/light thing is continued into the character building:
Riverdale beauty darkness light

The Problem With Melodrama: Believability

Because melodrama ignores the ordinary to concentrate on the unusual and unlikely, it often creates a credibility problem for readers who expect mimesis in storytelling.

melodrama film noir
Melodrama is a feature of film noir — a genre made up not by film makers themselves but by film critics.

Tips For Writing Melodrama

Tip 1: SHOW THAT THE MELODRAMATIC THING WORKS RIGHT AWAY

Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire starts out with a vampire talking into a tape recorder. Either way, you know pretty clearly what you’re in for from the beginning.

Each story demonstrates its central premise: modern vampires, or shoot-’em-up spaceflight. If you’re going to write melodrama, start with melodrama.

If your story will be playing by rules other writers have used before—that vampires exist, that faster-than-light travel is possible—melodrama may be the best way to go. work with the accepted convention. Introduce your premise with as little fuss as possible and get on with your story. Stephenie Mayer built her Twilight series on the accepted convention of vampires already established to modern readers by writers such as Anne Rice.

Tip 2: SHOW THAT THIS THING HAS WORKED IN THE RECENT PAST

Especially use this trick if you’re introducing an entirely new concept. 

There’s no arguing with the past — it’s over. Use this obvious bit of wisdom to have a character talk about the thing before it actually appears. Or you can write about a past event for which no satisfactory explanation has ever been found. The story then demonstrates the cause in the present, which also explains the past, retroactively.

Tip 3: USE A TRUSTWORTHY NARRATOR OR CHARACTER

Establish a reasonable character, and have them take the curse/magic/fantasy world seriously. Don’t have anybody doubting it, at least not for long.

This particular storytelling trick doesn’t always work well with the most savvy of young readers. Here’s a young adult who recently shared with the Internet why she doesn’t like YA fiction — one of her main points is that in real life nobody listens to teenagers. The fact that fictional adults listen to fictional young characters can either be a refreshing change or it can trigger annoyance, but now at least you see why writers do it.

Most readers are used to fictional conventions and are also appreciative of new and original fantasy worlds. They will accept anything if it is introduced correctly.

Tip 4: JUXTAPOSE THE EXTRAORDINARY WITH THE MUNDANE

Surround your curse with tangible everyday objects and activities, described in detail. I think this explains the popularity of magical realism. 

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe opens within the (historical) reality of war, in a house that could easily exist in the real world.

Tip 5: ONE IMPROBABILITY PER STORY

If there are a whole lot of odd goings-on they should all have, finally, a single cause. That one cause accepted, all the rest follows: the other oddities fall into place.

I feel writers underestimate readers sometimes, though. I fear this particular writing tip might be responsible for all those medieval fantasy worlds which are, when it all boils down, a retrograde white patriarchy. Perhaps writers think that they can only get away with the fantasy world itself, and that every other aspect of politics and 21st century social life must be laid upon this fantastical world otherwise we’re asking too much of readers.

Tip 6: NO UNDERCUTTING YOUR PREMISE

No waking up and it was all a dream. Don’t explain it away or make fun of it in any other way, either.

Tip 7: NO TALKING ABOUT THE IMPROBABILITY IN NARRATIVE SUMMARY

Especially at first, as you’re establishing its existence. These parts must be shown in scenes. Dialogue is more believable than summary. 

Lampshading has its uses, but be careful how and when you use it.

Tip 8: DON’T LET THE IMPROBABILITY TAKE OVER THE STORY

Write of the improbability sparingly. Don’t let it become commonplace. The amount of reality versus magic has to be balanced. A story in which literally anything can happen is a story in which nothing makes sense.

Make the magician or elf (or whatever) very normal and ordinary 99% of the time, but with the potential of being extraordinary once in a while. That builds credibility and also suspense, since the reader is always waiting for the specialness to come out.

If you’ve got a monster, don’t trot it out in every chapter or the reader will start to yawn. The monster you imagine, as a reader, is much more frightening than the monster you see.

 

Notes above are largely from Anson Dibell’s book on writing: Plot

Physiological Reactions In Fiction

physiological-reactions-fiction

Descriptions of physiological reactions are hard to write well because:

  1. We all know what the feels to be thirsty/humiliated/busting to go to the toilet, so why does an author feel the need to explain it again, as if her character is any different? Why not just tell and not show?
  2. Every possible physiological response must have been written before, over and over, so how to sound original?
  3. It’s so easy to sound unintentionally comical.
  4. Certain physiological reactions can be cringe inducing unless done masterfully.

Far too many stories these days prove merely three-dimensional. In other words, their principal characters display psychological width, length and depth, but operate as minds utterly detached from corporeal beings. As readers, we live inside their heads—not inside their bodies. We discover how their psyches process their surroundings, but not how their skin senses the living world. These characters explore an intensely abstract universe like brains trapped within jars, conversing with other similarly trapped entities.  They suffer ennui and angst, but never a stomach ache or a chest cold. They are the opposite of Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman in that their existence does not extend below the neck.

Fiction Writers’ Review

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Purple Adjectives, Plain Adjectives; Every adjective has a home

ON PURPLE PROSE

Apart from the fact that certain types of writing demand flowery language — a subset of the romance genre being a case in point — there are other uses for the sort of prose which otherwise reads so beautifully that it draws attention to itself. Sometimes such language has the unintended effect of drawing the reader out of the story. At other times there is a reason for it.

The Idea Of Perfection cover

 

This is the opening of Chapter 12 from Kate Grenville’s The Idea Of Perfection:

Out at The Bent Bridge, the men were having their smoko. They had got the fire going, twigs crackling under the billy, the flames invisible in the brilliant morning light. Smoke drifted away blue under the trees and turned the slanting sunlight into great organ-pipes of powdery light.

In a story set in the Australian bush, this paragraph almost seems out of place, with its excess adjectives (brilliant, blue, great) and alliteration (slanting sunlight) and its grandiose metaphor (organ-pipes) and original but tenuous use of ‘powdery’ rather than ‘dusty’. But the prose continues like this, with an abrupt change in tone:

The red-headed one they all called Blue opened his sandwich up, showing the flap of grainy grey devon inside. He had caught the sun across his bare freckled back and his eyes were bloodshot.

Er, yuk, he said, and peeled it off the bread.

It was stuck like wallpaper.

He flung it into the fire where it lay across a stick, curling, darkening, starting to sizzle. He stuck the two slices of bread back against each other.

It now becomes clear why the first paragraph had been so beautifully written: To contrast with the earthiness of the men working on the bridge.

The ‘red-headed one they all called Blue’ is an example of typically Australian irony, in which case colour is mentioned now for a different effect — to bring us back to the reality of ‘Australia’. The Australian-ness of this man is continued with the colour red — his freckles, his bloodshot eyes. There is no longer any glamour associated with adjectives of colour.

The devon sausage sounds even more disgusting than it is when contrasted against the ‘organ pipes of powdery light’, especially since ‘powdery’ is a word that could equally be used to describe devon, albeit with a completely different emotional outcome.

The dialogue, too, of ‘Er, yuk’ portrays unembellished laconic disgust, with its harsh ‘k’ sound.

‘It was stuck like wallpaper’ is another kind of imagery — a simile this time — but it has a quite different ring to it, because wallpaper is such an ordinary thing found in old houses, whereas ‘organ-pipes’ conjures up a cathedral with its high ceilings, spirituality and melodious sounds.

Next we have the colloquial verbs of ‘flung’ and ‘stuck’; Germanic-derived words which emphasise the harshness of the environs.

All of this works much better, of course, because it occurs in opposition to a flowery opening paragraph, which shows off the author’s flair for language, but with an end in mind… other than showing off.

ON PLAIN PROSE

The Beasts Of Clawstone Castle cover

Critique groups will often advise beginning writers to avoid meaningless adjectives such as ‘nice’ and ‘good. But again, sometimes these adjectives are used for a reason. Take the following introduction to the heroes of The Beasts of Clawstone Castle, by Eva Ibbotson:

The children lived in a ground-floor flat in a pleasant part of South London. Their parents were funny and clever and nice, but they were apt to be a little bit frantic because of their jobs. Mrs Hamilton ran an experimental theatre which put on interesting plays but kept on running out of money, and Mr Hamilton was a designer and had to have good ideas about what people should do with their houses.

  1. The parents are not important to the story. The author’s job at the beginning of the story is simply to get them out of the way. If the author were to give examples of ‘funny’ and ‘clever’ and ‘nice’ then the story would be about the parents and the action would be suspended.
  2. The repetition of these fairly meaningless adjectives underscores the fairly meaningless lives our protagonists lead at the beginning of the story. Since their lives are uneventful and their home is sheltered, the only way they will grow as people is by leaving their secure and uneventful environment to go on an adventure elsewhere.

The Reflection Character In Storytelling

You may have heard of the ‘shadow in the hero’ when creating a character web for a story. Shadow in the hero describes a relationship between opponents. But what if two very different characters bring out the best in each other? What do you call that?

reflection characters

What Is A Reflection Character?

This is my term for the character who is most closely aligned with your hero – the best friend, partner, mentor or spouse whose primary function is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation and to urge the hero toward transformation.
— David Hauge

The reflection character is an ally.

(The reflection itself is often called the ‘Shadow In The Hero’ when a hero’s weaknesses and strengths are mirrored in a nemesis rather than in an ally.)

Mentors As Reflection Characters

A typical role for a reflection character is that of mentor to the hero – a teacher, trainer, coach or therapist whose job is to give the hero the skills necessary to achieve his goal.

On the subject of mentors, mentors often die in films. It’s only when we get rid of the mentor that the hero is given the opportunity to show what they have learnt. A common trick is to put a young innocent person between two mentors and making them pick between them. This is a test of character.

In film, reflections who are teachers are usually introduced after the beginning of the story – often around the first key turning point. This allows the reader and audience to become acquainted with the reflection as the hero does, rather than having to fill in the blanks of an existing relationship, as with a “best friend” reflection who has been aligned with the hero for some time.

Raison d’etre

To make it credible that your hero can achieve both what they want and what they need, you want to give them some help in the form of a reflection character.

The reflection character’s primary goal is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation.

Tips For Creating A Good Reflection Character

These initial exchanges illustrate a critical element of creating an effective reflection character: There must be lots of conflict between hero and reflection. Even though the reflection is the hero’s ally, teacher and friend, it is the reflection’s role to push the hero beyond his limits, challenge the hero’s poor decisions or weak actions, and repeatedly criticize and cajole the hero toward doing what is necessary to achieve his or her goal.

At some point in the story, the hero MUST reject the reflection character completely; and ultimately the reflection must remain loyal to the hero in spite of this hurtful rejection until the hero returns and aligns with the reflection once again. (This corresponds to Truby’s step: ATTACK BY ALLY.)

Examples

The King’s Speech — Speech therapist Lionel Logue embodies all the characteristics of an effective reflection to the film’s hero Bertie (later King George VI).

The Matrix — Morpheus

Good Will Hunting — Sean (mentor)

My Best Friend’s Wedding — George

True Grit — Rooster Cogburn is a reluctant mentor

 

Dirty Dancing — Baby Houseman and Johnny Castle (dance teacher mentor)

Silence Of The Lambs — Clarice and Hannibal (mentor)

An Officer And A Gentleman — Zack Mayo and Sgt. Foley (mentor)

Scarlett and Rayner

Nashville — Rayna James is mentor to Scarlett due to her greater experience in the country music scene. Rayna is much taller than Scarlett, which is interesting because in film mother figures are often taller than daughter figures even though in real life daughters tend to be the same height or even a little taller than their mothers. Their common nemesis is Juliette Barnes, and the character web is interesting physiologically because from behind at least, Scarlett and Juliette go by the same description — they are both small with long, blonde hair. Juliette is the fierce, conniving and much more successful version of Scarlett in the first few seasons.

Jennifer Melfi

The Sopranos — Tony has a therapist, who eventually works out that he’s playing with her, and that you can’t fix a sociopath with therapy but you can enable one.

Reflection Characters In Children’s Stories

Matilda — Miss Honey. If Matilda keeps reading and studying, she’s likely to become a Miss Honey herself one day.

Miss Stacey — to Anne of Green Gables. Actual teachers as reflection characters are common in children’s literature, probably because this is the period of people’s lives where teachers are important.

The Witches — Grandmama to the first person narrator. Grandmama is the original witch hunter, but the job of exterminating them all is left to the grandson.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is a mirror character to a morose boy who needs to be drawn out of himself, into some kind of adventure, romantic or otherwise. We see this pairing in adult stories as well as in stories for younger readers, e.g. In The Middle Of The Night by Robert Cormier.

Shrek — Donkey is always looking at the bright side of everything, trying to work it out. Donkey is well known for acting annoyingly and irritatingly towards other characters, especially Shrek. One night, during camp, Donkey asks Shrek why he hates everyone so much, and Shrek angrily reveals that everyone judges him a scary monster before getting to actually know him, and Donkey acknowledges that he already knew that there was more to Shrek’s character when they met. Donkey begins to notice a romance between Fiona and Shrek, despite their denials. So Donkey is that upbeat friend who brings Shrek out of a fug and counsels him romantically.

Up — Russell to the old man is similar to the relationship between Donkey and Shrek. (Not so different from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, except for genre and gender.)

Mary Ingalls — to sister Laura. Mary’s level-headedness and later, her blindness, goes some way towards ‘taming’ Laura, turning her into a caring, kind person as well as someone who loves an outdoors adventure.

Gilbert Blythe — to Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables.

Karate Kid — Mr Miyagi (and later Mr Han). Mr Miyagi is also a trickster (mentor + trickster) because he gets Daniel-san to basically do all his most annoying and time-consuming tasks so he can sit back and tend to his bonsai.

Not Really Related

Your Dog Is Your Mirror cover
This is a non-fiction book cover that scares the hell out of me.

Aerial Perspective In Picture Books

When looking at an image, how does the viewer get a sense of depth? The artist can add depth to an image using various tricks.

It starts with simple overlapping.

The chase for deep space begins by occluding one form with another.  With overlapping shapes we easily decide which is in front and which is in back.  From here we go on to explore other methods, color recession, linear and atmospheric perspective,  texture gradient shifts, amalgamating textures, diminishing edge acuity, diminishing ratios of contrast and on and on.

David Dunlop

But there’s more to depicting space than simple occlusion: The ratio of contrast between light and dark diminishes over distance. This visual effect is known as aerial or atmospheric perspective.

Claude Lorrain introduced the glowing obscuring effects of atmospheric perspective in the 1600s.  From the 1628 to 1668 we can trace Claude’s further development of atmospheric effects.

— for examples see David Dunlop’s post.

In an earlier post, Dunlop explains the Chinese history of this technique:

Long before Claude Lorraine introduced atmospheric perspective effects in the 1600s Chinese artists of the Song Dynasty had already developed these effects in their landscape painting in the 10th century 600 years earlier. Among their basic tenets was the principle of substance vs. absence. This meant that a misty amorphous air would lie in the space between receding forms, between mountains for example.

Atmosphere From China to Italy

Today there are various ways artists depict aerial perspective.

Change The Hue To Blue

Background scenery such as distant mountains tend to look more blue. (That’s especially true here in Australia, for anyone living within cooee of the Blue Mountains.)

Love le renard by Frederic Brremaud & Federico Bertolucci

Perhaps inspired by landscapes, even buildings can be blued out, even if the building is obviously not that far away! This lets the detail of the foreground stand out.

blue aerial perspective
In this image the general real life rule of ‘blue for distance’ is exaggerated.

People can also be blued out:

Or a blue outline may suffice.

The Wheel On The School

Whereas aerial perspective is more noticeable across vistas covering large distances, artists can also use it to create depth in very intimate settings, for instance when foreshortening:

by Claire Elan

 

At sunset, or in the (polluted) city, the blue is often swapped out for orange hues:

aerial perspective orange

Warms in the background, blues in the foreground definitely convey the feeling of a place cooling down after a hot day.

by Jamey Christoph

But not always. I feel the image below aims to convey atmosphere rather than time of day.

by Chuck Groenink

The general rule of cools in the background, warms in the foreground can also be inverted for a surreal, pop-art kind of look.

by Guy Shield

In a utopian setting where you don’t want any desaturation, you can change the palette. Often it will be cool colours for the background palette, warm for the foreground, but the cools are as bright as the warms.

aerial perspective change palette

Lower Opacity/Fade

The further away, the less vivid the colours. Or even if there are no colours at all, the background will seem more see-through. In digital illustration, this can be achieved by lowering the opacity of the background images.

aerial perspective in black and white, by Jon Klassen
aerial perspective in black and white, by Jon Klassen

Fantasy illustrators tend to make heavy use of this technique as it creates a highly atmospheric image — often dystopian.

fantasy aerial perspective
In a Near Future by Francesco Lorenzetti

The inevitable result: These atmospheres look foggy. I often think there’s a helluva lot of fog in fantasy imaginations. Sfmato refers to the technique of allowing tones and colours to shade gradually into one another, producing softened outlines or hazy forms. It is not a modern invention:

500 years before DaVinci introduced sfumato’s smoky edges and misty landscape backgrounds for his portraits Sung Dynasty Chinese artists had already discovered the value of obscuring mist as a segue between mountains and a method for creating a feeling of mysterious space within a landscape. Claude Lorrain perfected the sensation of obscuring atmosphere for European landscape painters. 200 years later his atmospherics would be admired and imitated by J.M.W. Turner.

By the mid 19th century photographers and painters were both employing the mysterious benefits of fog.  James Whistler worked on the reverse side of his canvases to exploit the neutral pebbly surface he found there which supported his soft edged misty evening landscapes.

David Dunlop

Blur

Background scenery might be more blurry if you want to draw attention to your foreground image. This is a natural consequence of taking a photograph using an SLR camera and can also be applied to art. (It’s also a natural consequence of being short-sighted…)

by Elly MacKay

aerial perspective blur

Or, you might blur out the foreground and leave the background layer in focus.

by Mike Bear

Frame With Very Dark Foreground

In this image of Beauty and the Beast’s castle, artist Petur Antonsson has used four distinct perspective layers, starting with almost black in the foreground, brightest for the focal point (the house), an ochre layer of trees and a misty, blue castle behind.

aerial perspective foreground silhouette

Darken foreground lines

thick lines
Here’s a rather extreme example of line thickening in the foreground.

Change the amount of detail

 

Use white lines as background scenery

Heidi aerial perspective
white lines forming a gesture of mountains in the background
The Snow Queen
thin white lines for the background building, thicker lines for the trees in the middle ground, full colour for the children in the foreground

Use unfilled objects (with dark lines) as background scenery

In Drahos Zac’s illustrations for The Pied Piper, there may be ominous reasons for avoiding the sepia fill on background buildings: The inhabitants of those particular buildings may have already died. This theory holds up when you consider some of the foreground characters are also left unfilled. This feels reminiscent of ghosts.

Pied Piper Drahos Zak drahos zak2

aerial perspective lines

Silhouettes As Background Objects

by Erwin Madrid

Or the silhouette might have a bit of detail. You can be as silhouette-y as you like.

Rootabaga Stories

Silhouettes don’t have to be relegated to the background, as proven by this photograph:

Winterwonderland by Sabine Thöle

Levels of Detail In Literature

writing the detail

In storytelling, not every detail is necessary for the plot. In which case, why keep it? Writers are told to cut, cut, cut. But don’t cut everything, just because it doesn’t advance the plot. There are multiple kinds of fictional detail, each performing different functions.

James Wood has his own taxonomy of detail:

On-duty and Off-duty Detail

There is a conventional but modern fondness for quiet but “telling” detail: “The detective noticed that Carla’s hairband was surprisingly dirty.” If there is such a thing as a telling detail, then there must be such a thing as an untelling detail, no? A better distinction might be between what I would call “off-duty” and “on-duty” detail; the off-duty detail is part of the standing army of life, as it were–it is always ready to be activated. Literature is full of such off-duty detail. […] Nineteenth-century realism, from Balzac on, creates such an abundance of detail that the modern reader has come to expect of narrative that it will always contain a certain superfluity, a built-in redundancy, that it will carry more detail than it needs. In other words, fiction builds into itself a lot of surplus detail just as life is full of surplus details.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

There’s a great danger inherent in a writer’s choice of ‘telling detail’. The detail might ‘tell’ the writer’s own prejudices. Be mindful of the detail chosen to ‘tell’ the reader a character is:

  • poor
  • disabled
  • not white

In these cases, it’s generally safer to tell rather than ‘show’ via ‘telling detail’. Stereotypes are a useful shortcut between writer and reader, but only when writer and reader are complicit in their own privilege to the point where they don’t even see it themselves.

Barthes’s Referential Illusion

Although surplus detail feels like it’s meant to denote what’s ‘real’, all it does is signify it.

Realism in general, it is implied, is just such a business of false denotation. […] Realism offers the appearance of reality but is in fact utterly fake–what [Roland] Barthes calls “the referential illusion.” […] those laurel-leaf haircuts worn by the actors in Hollywood “Roman” films signify “Romanness” in the way that Flaubert’s barometer signifies “realness”.

— How Fiction Works

‘Random’ Detail

No detail in fiction is ever truly random, because the writer has chosen to include it, starting from nothing.

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:

  1. The narrator notices stuff that ordinary people walking around would not notice, and can even make imagery out of mundane detail.
  2. For some reason, the narrator has gone to the trouble of writing it down.
  3. 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

Telling versus Lifeless Detail

Rose Tremain’s categorisation is simple:

Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one.

– Rose Tremain

Lavish Backstories

Novelist Donna Tartt endows her characters, however minor, with lavish backstories. No detail is too small. ”Not everything has to serve the plot,” Tartt says. ”Dickens digresses. I like books that are big, busy and bustling. Novels are capacious. Those casual walk-on parts create the illusion of life, which is baggy with people you never see again and get to know fleetingly.”

from an interview with Donna Tartt, Sydney Morning Herald

Leave Out The Unrealistic Memories

Think of a significant moment in your life. Maybe you heard the Twin Towers had been bombed. Maybe someone died. Maybe a stalker chased you through a park.

Which of the details do you remember from that moment?

I’m thinking of one. I remember:

  • – What I said
  • – How I felt at the time
  • – Sequence of events
  • – How I felt afterwards

What I don’t remember:

  • – What he looked like, much
  • – What he said
  • – The colour of his eyes!
  • – His rippling forearm
  • – The sweat across his brow.

And this, fellow writers, must have consequences in fiction. When our viewpoint character looks back in time, don’t get too specific. Memory doesn’t work like that.

We all have an ongoing narrative inside our heads, the narrative that is spoken aloud if a friend asks a question. That narrative feels deeply natural to me. We also hang on to scraps of dialogue. Our memories don’t usually serve us up whole scenes complete with dialogue.

– from an interview with Lydia Davis

An excellent example of remembered detail can be found in the aptly named “What Is Remembered“, a short story by Alice Munro. In this story, an older woman looks back at a time in her life when she was unfaithful to her husband. The details she remembers in the close third person narration are signifiers — they have stuck in her memory after all else has faded.

It was in a small, decent building, three or four stories high, inexpensive rather than cheap-looking. All that she would remember about it would be the glass bricks around the front entrance and the elaborate, heavy hi-fi equipment of that time, which seemed to be the only furniture in the living room.

[…]

She remembered his hazel-gray eyes, the close-up view of his coarse skin, a circle like an old scar beside his nose, the slick breadth of his chest as he reared up from her. But she could not have given a useful description of what he looked like. She believed that she had felt his presence so strongly, from the very beginning, that ordinary observation was not possible. Sudden recollection of even their early, unsure and tentative moments could still make her fold in on herself, as if to protect the raw surprise of her own body, the racketing of desire.

— Alice Munro

Robin Black is another short story writer who understands that memory has holes in it. When describing an event which happened 13 years earlier, here’s how she writes it:

Jeremy could only ever remember bits and pieces of those two weeks, the ones when [his daughter] was gone. Merciful amnesia, a friend once called it — except it wasn’t very merciful, because only the worst of it stuck with him. Or so he assumed. Like the first shock at her absence, as too many hours passed for it to be benign teenage tardiness; like walking the streets of London, night after night, as though she might have become a nocturnal creature waiting to reveal herself in the dark; like the dawning nightmarish realisation that he himself was a suspect in her disappearance.

— A Country Where You Once Lived by Robin Black

Description Must Work For Its Place

Hilary Mantel is basically saying what Lydia Davis is saying, and demonstrates why writing in close third person is easier (and more modern-sounding) than writing in a truly omniscient voice, for what details would a god notice?

Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.

– Hilary Mantel

Detail in Short Stories

Detail in a short story has to carry a lot of weight. Even more than in novels, everything means something.

In the short story, detail is transformed into metaphorical significance. In a novel, on the other hand, the particular can remain merely the particular. It exists to make the reader feel he/she knows the experience — to create verisimilitude.

— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity, edited by Per Winther

Raymond Carver offers a disclaimer: Even in a poem or a short story the language used to describe this detail does not, itself, have to be startling. Everyday words will still do the trick.

It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power.

— Raymond Carver, On Writing

Detail in Children’s Literature

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead won the Newbery Medal. A large part of that was because of her choice of detail. Stead makes every small detail matter. The Newbery judges chose the novel for making the small details important to the plot. Publishers Weekly added that even the smallest of details—Miranda’s name, her strange habits and why she carries A Wrinkle in Time with her—have a reason for their inclusion by the end of the novel.

RELATED

Tips on writing memorable fiction with good use of detail, at Anne R Allen’s Blog

INTERVIEWER

Are you a constant observer, consciously looking for things you can use as a writer?

CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD

I think I’m a very unobservant person, one who goes straight to concepts about people and ignores evidence to the contrary and the bric-a-brac surrounding that person. Stephen Spender said an amusing thing about Yeats—that he went for days on end without noticing anything, but then, about once a month, he would look out of a window and suddenly be aware of a swan or something, and it gave him such a stunning shock that he’d write a marvelous poem about it. That’s more the kind of way I operate: suddenly something pierces the reverie and self-absorption that fill my days, and I see with a tremendous flash the extraordinariness of that person or object or situation.

— The Paris Review interview, The Art of Fiction No. 49, by W. I. Scobie

AUTHENTICATING DETAIL

If you hear the term ‘authenticating detail’, it’s not easy to Google so here’s a link.

Tips and Tricks from Muriel Spark

The Finishing School

In this novel, Muriel Spark takes a swipe at hack writers and aspiring novelists. All of the characters are cliches and stereotypes, working well as a comedic ensemble to convey Spark’s own ideas on writing. We are to read most of this book as irony. Failure to do so would render it dry.

Rowland marvelled as he read her essay. How slick and self-confident these young people were… How they could cover the pages, juggling the paragraphs around on their p.c.s and never for a moment thinking that any word could be spelt other than the way they wanted it to be. Tilly ‘dansed’ with her friend from ‘Nipall’. Why not? Rowland thought. She will always have an editor to put her story straight.

A common but inaccurate perception that editors exist solely to copyedit the genius of writers, who do not need to learn the basic tools of writing, but whose talent is glowing enough to shine through their basic errors.

‘Watch for details,’ Rowland had often said. ‘Observe. Think about your observations. Think hard. They do not need to be literally true. Literal truth is arid. Analyse your subject. Get at the Freudian reality, the inner kernel. Everything means something other than it seems. The cat means the mother.’

A poke at writers who dress plain things up with figurative language which gets in the way of the story.

‘I’ve changed my mind, you know, about the book I’m writing. It won’t be a novel. It will eventually be a life-study of a real person, Chris. At present I am accumulating the notes.’

True writers just get on with finishing what they’ve started. Rowland will never finish his novel because he can’t decide on what he wants to write about.

‘He hasn’t got a publisher yet,’ said Rowland. ‘That’s the sine qua non of a book.’

Characterisation

Rowland’s pompous side is underscored by his use of Latin. He could have said ‘prerequisite’, a perfectly acceptable English term but he must show off his classical education, as many hi-falutin writers tend to do.

Muriel Spark also manages to have a go at publishers who seize the opportunity to publish work by very young authors who have a platform because of their age; talented writers who nevertheless get carried away too soon, wanting their first draft made into a movie; authors who rework the plot of an existing classic; writers who use big words like ‘antiguous’, causing others to look it up; and close-readings of Thomas Hardy.

The Humour

Muriel Spark has a wonderful, acerbic tone and I enjoy her humour because it is not the kind that slaps you in the face.

Nina is conducting her comme il faut class (a class about social etiquette – the French only making it seem more pretentious than it already is). Like Miss Jean Brodie, Nina has firm but very biased ideas about such things, and embarks upon a lecture:

‘Be careful who takes you to Ascot,’ she said, ‘because unless you have married a rich husband, he is probably a crook.’ (As if rich husbands couldn’t possibly be crooks.) … Your man is bound to be a crook, bound to be. It teems with crooks…’

‘My dad doesn’t go to Ascot,’ said Pallas. (Meaning to point out that his father is therefore, proudly NOT a crook)

‘Oh I didn’t say all crooks went to Ascot, only that there are plenty of them at that function.’ (Implying in a most pragmatic way that even though Pallas’ father IS a crook, that doesn’t mean he has to go to Ascot – wonderfully twisted logic.)

But much of the humour comes from the setting – the most pretentious setting anyone could dream up – a finishing school in Switzerland. The formal language echoes the formal, pompous setting. Spark even hyphenates ‘to-day’ in the old-fashioned way.

Narration

The novel begins with Rowland opining about how to set the scene in a novel. The novel is written in omniscient POV, zooming in and out from the mind of Rowland, the 29-year-old principal of the finishing school, and aspiring novelist.

Spark makes good use of free indirect style:

It was early July, but not summery. The sky bulged, pregnant with water.

Here, it is not the narrator speaking, but obviously Rowland. Muriel Spark knows that such an image will provoke laughter and she directs our laughter towards her pompous character. This is exactly how Rowland would see the sky, in his melodramatic, overwritten way.

Key Words And Phrases in Middle Grade Fiction

keywords

‘Key words’ in storytelling is a slightly wider-ranging way to describe the  motif.

Key words, phrases, taglines, and sounds [have] the potential to carry special meaning, symbolically or thematically, the way a symphony uses certain instruments, such as the triangle, here and there for emphasis. The trick to building this meaning is to have your characters say the word many more times than normal. The repetition, especially in multiple contexts, has a cumulative effect on the audience.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

John Truby is a screenwriting guru, so obviously his focus is on key words as the audience hears them in dialogue.

James Wood, whose speciality is adult literature, recognises the same technique on the page, and how it relates to real life:

We all know people in real life who […] use a series of jingles and tags and repetitive gestures to maintain a certain kind of performance.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

At TV Tropes, you’ll find an entry for ‘Arc Words‘: Words or a phrase that appears throughout the story as an Arc or as a Motif.

Likewise, the arc phrase is employed by many authors of middle grade fiction.

Examples Of Key Words In Middle Grade Fiction

In Once by Morris Gleitzman the arc phrase word involves the word Once, which was introduced — most obviously — as the title.

Everybody deserves to have something good in their life. At least once.
Barney said that everybody deserves to have something good in their life at least once. I have. More than once.

Related to arc phrases are ‘catch phrases’.

The hero of Once is in a dire situation — he is a Polish kid in the Nazi era, dodging murder at every turn. It would be easy for this story to turn into a sob story, so Gleitzman has him use the phrase, “You know how…” whenever he’s telling the reader something terrible about his life. This is more of a character tic than a motif.

The first example occurs at the third sentence of the book, and these situations he describes only get more and more dire:

You know how when a nun serves you very hot soup from a big metal pot and she makes you lean in close so she doesn’t drip and the steam from the pot makes your glasses go all misty and you can’t wipe them because you’re holding your dinner bowl and the fog doesn’t clear even when you pray to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Pope and Adolf Hitler?
That’s happening to me.

Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce is a middle grade novel which was written concurrently with the screenplay. My point is that the book was written by an experienced writer of screenplays. Naturally Cottrell Boyce made use of all he knew about screenplays when writing the middle grade novel.

In Millions, the first person storyteller narrator repeats the phrase, “To get X about it…

Judy Moody (series written by Megan McDonald) has a catch phrase — I don’t know if it’s a regional dialect but I’ve never heard it before: “Rare!” My seven-year-old started using this word only after reading it in Judy Moody, though she did use it in the general way rather than in the Judy Moody way, as an exclamation.

Joan Aiken’s raven, Mortimer, squawks “Nevermore!” in reference to the classic poem, which is funny because the stories are slapstick humorous whereas the poem is gothic horror. Apart from making squawk type sounds this is the only word he knows. Aiken adroitly contrives a surprising number of occasions in which he can use it.

Unintentional Pop Culture Spoofing

Chances are that looking back on your childhood experience of reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, you remember ‘lashings of‘ in reference to the picnics — lashings of cream, lashings of butter, lashings of ginger beer. If you happen to re-read those books the word ‘lashings’ doesn’t actually appear all that often. But for some reason it stuck! Helped along by Comic Strip Presents… Five Go Mad In Dorset parody. ‘Lashings’ became part of pop culture mostly as a derisive comment on Blyton’s unimaginative prose, I suspect (she could pump these out one per week). I’m sure this spoof does the popularity of the series no harm.

If Enid Blyton had belonged to a critique group, or had she been more of a stylist, her (over)use of the word ‘lashings’ may have been edited out. But as Blyton’s ‘lashings’ demonstrates, even unintentional overuse of a word can become part of its enduring popularity.