Unexpected Detail In Fiction

Some of the most powerful details in fiction are the ones we don’t expect. We might call this ironic detail, or perhaps we should just stick with ‘surprise’. Good stories are all about surprise.

A huge amount of information about character and backstory can be conveyed through small detail.

Sarah Waters

Good writing is specific writing, and specific writing is good writing. Be specific. “No ideas but in things,” wrote William Carlos Williams—the five most golden words there ever were, for a writer. Don’t tell us it was hot, but instead, like Eudora Welty, remind us that the fading pink roses were the color of a bird dog’s panting tongue. That the ceaseless sound of the cicadas in the trees high overhead was like the sound of grain being poured into a metal bucket. Specificity is the lever, the pry bar, by which you lift up new universes and make readers believe all things. 

Rick Bass

THE EYEBALL KICK

One kind of unexpected detail has been called the “eyeball kick”.

“Eyeball kick” is used by some writers to describe perfect, telling detail that creates an instant, lasting visual image. Science fiction author Rudy Rucker has described postmodern schools of sci-fi as aiming for the ideal of “crammed prose” full of “eyeball kicks”.

Eyeball kicks only work when used sparingly. Too many eyeball kicks weaken the overall effect.

EXAMPLE ONE

Expected detail: The smell of urine on a person is disgusting.

Unexpected detail:

A slight but persistent smell of urine […] would have disgusted me on a woman but […] seemed in his case not just forgivable but somehow an expression of ancient privilege. When I went into the bathroom after he had been there, it was like the lair of some mangy, still powerful beast.

Alice Munro, “Cortes Island

EXAMPLE TWO

Expected reaction: When you and your family are involved in a car accident, you are pleased to find everyone alive.

Unexpected reaction:

“But nobody’s killed,” June Star said with disappointment

Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find

EXAMPLE THREE

Expected detail: When a character sets about murdering another character right in front of you, you’d expect their voice to change from ‘thin and pleasant’ to ‘growly and horrible’ or something like that.

Unexpected: When the character doing the murdering doesn’t change their voice. Instead, against expectation, their voice only becomes more thin and pleasant.

I’m talking about Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web, showing Wilbur for the first time how she kills a fly.

EXAMPLE FOUR

This is another example from Charlotte’s Web.

Expected detail: A highly emotional scene will ease us gently from the emotion and back to the mundane.

Unexpected: When the author wrenches us out of it.

“You stay right where you are!” said her mother. Tears came to Fern’s eyes.
“What’s everybody crying about?” asked Mr Zuckerman. “Let’s get busy! Edith, brign the buttermilk!”
Mrs Zuckerman wiped her eyes with her handkerchief. She went to the truck and came back with a gallon jar of buttermilk.

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

Why the sudden jump from everybody crying to a buttermilk bath?

Peter Neumeyer writes in his Annoted Guide to Charlotte’s Web that ‘It’s a good writerly device in passages of high emotion to deflect attention to something as mundane as a buttermilk bath. At Cornell, White had already written his rule for good writing: never to take oneself too damned seriously’.

WRITING PITFALLS

Caesar’s palmtop. A handy device an author introduces, in all innocence, whose existence in this particular fictional universe implies a huge offstage infrastructure that demands so much overhead explanation that it knocks the reader out of paying attention to the story. (CSFW: David Smith)

Gag detail. Unnecessarily unrealistic detail that blows the credibility of the story. “I can accept a Neanderthal going to Harvard, but a Neanderthal with a middle name? Gag.” (CSFW: Sarah Smith)

GLOSSARY OF TERMS USEFUL IN CRITIQUING SCIENCE FICTION

FURTHER READING

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