Monday, June 15, 2009

It’s All in the Details

Think about your descriptions. Sometimes it's the little things that say the most. As an example, read this sentence by V.S. Naipaul in Guerrillas:
"A triangle of white light was advancing from the porch into the sitting room, over the curling edge of the electric-blue carpet, which lay untacked on the terrazzo floor."
"Porch" and "sitting room" evoke almost genteel images. "Electric-blue" seems rather modern. But the words that really get to the core are "curling edge" and "untacked." Without those minuscule details, the sentence would have a whole different meaning.

What could you say about an object or a scene or a character that would be so right-on it would be unforgettable or would bring that image into sharp focus? Look at this from Rumer Godden in Black Narcissus:
"The woman's face was Chinese, brown and withered like a ginger root; she wore dark blue clothes, a necklace of turquoises and sharp little silver knives, and her hair in pigtails like two grey wires."
I don't think I'm going to forget a face withered like ginger root and pigtails that look like two grey wires.

What you're describing may not require eloquent words. The mood may need starkness. Here's Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale:
"When I'm naked I lie down on the examining table, on the sheet of chilly crackling disposable paper. I pull the second sheet, the cloth one, up over my body. At neck level there's another sheet, suspended from the ceiling. It intersects me so that the doctor will never see my face. He deals with a torso only."
Look for just the right words that evoke the emotion, the image, the soul of what you want to say or describe. It's not necessarily easy. It may take many rewrites and a lot of searching for the telling aspects and perfect words. But when you get it right, it can be an epiphany.

It can also be the difference between a so-so book and a great book.
Helen Ginger is a freelance editor, book consultant, blogger, and writer. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write!, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its tenth year of publication.

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  1. AMEN!!! Great examples. Just one word can make a difference. Robert McKee of Story fame, talks about how the word "unlicensed" enhances the reality, the world it suggests, in the elevator scene of Ghostbusters.

    Dr. Peter Venkman says "Why worry? Each one of us is carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back."

    As McKee says, "like there's such a thing as a 'licensed' nuclear accelerator" a guy could wear on his back.

  2. It's definitely all in the details

  3. Really liked and appreciated this article. I can tell by your posts you are a first rate editor, Helen. Good points here, took some notes. :)

    The Old Silly From Free Spirit Blog

  4. Thanks all for stopping by and commenting! Gay, I think perhaps kids are all unlicensed nuclear accelerators and moms are the nuclear device. ;-)

  5. Definitely some great detail in these examples. Thanks!


  6. Hi Lisa. It's easy to find great examples. I just look at the books I love.

  7. Very nice little list. Could I add a few lines from "Darkness at Noon", by Arthur Koestler. Immediately after the main character is arrested on page 2, he looks out the window of his cell.

    "On the rampart of the outside wall, which lay opposite Rubashov's cell, a soldier with slanted rifle was marching the hundred steps up and down; he stamped at every step as if on parade. From time to time the yellow light of the lanterns flashed on his bayonet."

    The rhythm of the stamping and the sight of that bayonet are all we need to see the prison guards and to know there is no escape. A brilliant five line summary of hopelessness.

  8. My favorite example is from a Harry Chapin song ("A Better Place To Be")

    "He went to turn on the only light to brighten up the gloom"

    I absolutely love the word 'only' in that sentence as he describes a room in a run-down boarding house with only one light to turn on. It's a completely generic ordinary room if he goes 'to turn on the light'


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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