Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Lost in the Details

I've spent two days writing a scene where one of my characters gets in a freight elevator and rides it up to her loft. Two days. Sometimes the descriptions that encompass small details, everyday actions, take the longest time to render. I might spend twenty minutes writing a paragraph that sums up the vagaries of the human condition. But what about when a character checks her email? Or makes a phone call? Or cooks dinner? These everyday details throw me. How do you describe the commonplace without sounding rote? Or harder still, how do you make these actions convey meaning specific to the character?

I look to other writers to guide me. The action in Stewart O'Nan's novella, Last Night at the Lobster, takes place over one day and (last) night. Because it's a short novel, about the closing of a franchise restaurant and how that affects the employees, there's no room for florid description or long, overheated sentences. Many times I was struck at how O'Nan concisely moved his main character, the restaurant manager, Manny, from point A to B:

"Manny strides to the far end of the bar, dips his hip at the corner, then squares, stutter-steps and shoulders through the swinging door." It's not just movement, it conveys something about the character. Manny's done this a million times before, it's rote to him, but O'Nan makes it feel fresh. It's worth quoting the next line: "It should be no surprise that his body has memorized the geometry of the Lobster, but today everything seems alien and remarkable, precious, being almost lost." We get the memorization part, and it's alien because the place closes for good at the end of the night, making the whole day take on a new quality.

How do characters act when they fight? What is it about their postures and gestures that suggest their inner works? In Richard Yates' modern-novel template Revolutionary Road, Frank and April Wheeler are having another fight. Frank has stopped the car at the side of the road at night, and both are out. April won't tell Frank why she's mad at him. In reaction: "His arms flapped and fell; then, as the sound and the lights of an approaching car came up behind them, he put one hand in his pocket and assumed a conversational slouch for the sake of appearances." Frank feels powerless to understand April's anger (flapping falling arms) and even in the dark feels compelled to keep up appearances.

Richard Russo, a master of small town moments, writes well of cooks and the workings of restaurants and diners. In his first novel, Mohawk, Russo frames some of the story about the denizens of the town of Mohawk, New York at the Mohawk Grill. It's the start of the novel, and Harry, who runs the Grill, is starting his daily ritual, as Wild Bill looks on. "'Hungry?' Harry says. Wild Bill nods, and studies the grill, which is sputtering butter. Harry lifts a large bag of link sausages and tosses several dozen on the grill, covering its entire surface, then separates them with the edge of his spatula, arranging them in impressive phalanxes...(Wild Bill) watches hypnotized as the links spit and jump." It's a nice touch to see an everyday activity through the eyes of the one person in town who appreciates it. We've all seen the spit and jump of cooking food. It's this attention to detail throughout Russo's writing that makes you feel like you're looking through a door propped open by the only person who knows how.

What about recreating a specific historic moment? In Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, he configures the small human and mechanical gestures of lower Manhattan on the morning in the early 70s' when Philippe Petit walked between the Twin Towers: "Around the watchers, the city still made its everyday noises: Car horns. Garbage trucks. Ferry whistles. The thrum of the subway. The M22 bus pulled in against the sidewalk, braked, sighed down into a pothole. A flying chocolate wrapper touched against a fire hydrant. Taxi doors slammed. Bits of trash sparred in the darkest reaches of the alleyways. Sneakers found their sweetspots. The leather of briefcases rubbed against trouserlegs. A few umbrella tips clinked against the pavement. Revolving doors pushed quarters of conversation out into the street." Without following one character or sticking to one event, McCann places the reader at a real moment in time with a specificity of place.

Sometimes these descriptions are what genre writers do best; economically flicking through a character's movements to get them to the next scene of action or romance or suspense. Take this nugget early on in Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse, as we first meet the Continental Op, looking for evidence in a front yard: "I put (the diamond) in my pocket and began searching the lawn as closely as I could without going at it on all fours." He doesn't have time or inclination to crawl around, but needs to get close enough to rut around the grass just the same.

So, what about my character taking the elevator? I can take a lesson from Frank Wheeler, on his way up to his dreary job: "...he obeyed the pointed finger of the elevator starter without quite being aware of it, nor did he notice which of the six elevator operators it was who sleepily made him welcome...Pressed well back in the polite bondage of the car, he heard the sliding door clamp shut and the safety gate go rattling after it, and as the car began to rise he was surrounded by the dissonant conversation of his colleagues."

It's not about showing what a character does, it's showing how she does it.


Laurie said...

Hey Dell,
I really loved this post about details. I think it's all about the details when it comes to creating characters or the mood/ambience of a scene. Thanks for sharing pieces of descriptions from stories to show us how it can be done. Keep sharing your observations and insight...

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Laurie. That was just a surface scratch--there's a million such examples. Actually, writing this post helped me understand better how to describe my character's actions.

Liz's Mom said...

The examples you chose made me want to read the books, especially the Lobster one. So glad you notice these things and point them out. (I intend to read more carefully in the future.) This is another of your excellent essays about a writer solving a problem. Very good indeed !

Dell Smith said...

Thanks LM. I gave Muriel Lobster last year for Christmas. She read it and sent it back to me and I just read it. I think you'd like it.

Robin said...

Dell -- This is a brilliant post. It reminds me of a day when my editor was desperate to find a photo that had run the summer before (the story was about a car left abandoned in the Macmillan Pier parking lot in P'town). It turned out there was no photo. The reporter had used such specific language that Cliff remembered the reporting as if he had seen a photo. Great stuff! You capture some wonderful description here.

Dell Smith said...

Great story Robin. Specific detail is crucial to good writing.

trish said...

hi dell, i'm a twitter friend of liz & admirer of mr kat.
i appreciate your openness and man in the middle perspective, you have it- the description gift. good expression is being vulnerable in the details and your writing is beautiful. the reworking and refining- 2 days for the passage, so worth every minute.
the part about writing about everyday life- the challenge.. it seems easier for me to write from what i know. i just realized you must walk in every character's shoes and immerse yourself in their heads. i am exhausted for you. looking out the window seems like a great idea. look forward to more. happy new year. best t

Dell Smith said...

Hi Trish. I appreciate your very kind comments. Yes, writing fiction is very much like walking in various character's shoes. That's the fun and the challenge of it. Thanks for reading!

Cynthia Sherrick said...

When I write, I attempt to blend all motivation, action, and movement in a scene to the emotion of the POV character. Sometimes it actually works. :)

Thank you for these wonderful writing examples!

Dell Smith said...

Hey Cyn. I think that's what I aspire to as well. And, like you say, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't.

Henriette Power said...

Dell, this is a great post. I love your examples, and the lessons you draw from them. I've been reading James Wood's How Fiction Works lately, and he has some wonderful things to say about the use of details in fiction. He cites a passage from Flaubert's Sentimental Education that works the same way your McCann example works (I suspect Wood would agree that McCann is doing the same thing Flaubert did). Here's part of the Flaubert that Wood uses:
"The great walls of the colleges looked grimmer than ever, as if the silence had made them longer; all sorts of peaceful sounds could be heard, the fluttering of wings in bird-cages, the whirring of a lathe, a cobbler's hammer; and the old-clothes men, in the middle of the street, looking hopefully but in vain at every window. At the back of the deserted cafes, women behind the bars yawned between the untouched bottles; the newspapers lay unopened on the reading-room tables; in the laundresses' workshops the washing quivered in the warm draughts" (p. 40). Wood says some things about detail and point of view that you might find interesting.
Thanks for writing about this. It's a great topic.

Dell Smith said...

Yes, exactly. I love "...yawning between untouched bottles." I find it helps to read how other writers (good writers) write, and stepping away from my own work to give it perspective.

I've had my eye on the James Wood book. Sounds like it's worth tracking down. Thanks for reading!