Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | October 15, 2013

It’s All in the Details

Being a writer has affected how I read a book. As I read, I now notice things authors do to enhance or advance the story or lay the groundwork for later action that I never paid attention to before. I notice how writers integrate back story and setting into the tale and build their characters through dialogue and action rather than through direct narration. As a result, when reading a novel I can often surmise some of the story’s future events and how the novel will end. That reduces the element of surprise for me – though I still am surprised by unexpected twists – but has not reduced my enjoyment of the book since I read not just for enjoyment but also to see how the author tells the story.

Over the years I’ve taken classes and workshops, attended conferences and conventions, and read magazine articles and books about writing. Again and again successful writers have urged fledgling writers to study the books they like best and examine that writer’s use of the tools of the craft. When I first tried to do this, I found it highly frustrating. I would start off analyzing as I read, but in short order, I would get caught up in the story and forget analyzing, even when I’d read the book several times before. So I tried to pick a random spot in a book and start there, but that didn’t work any better. It’s taken years of trying (and writing) to get to the point where I can analyze as I read. And I have to admit that my analyzing tends to end around the midpoint of the book when I invariably get caught up in the characters and story. I don’t mind that at all (and I still note occasional details of writing craft) because it indicates a really good book.

Since I pay attention to details in a story, it annoys me when a writer sticks in a convenient object, skill, or trait that did not exist earlier in the work. If Bill and Sue are going to sit on her front porch swing in Chapter 12, then she must have a front porch the first time he visits her in Chapter Two. If Millie is an excellent marksman, I want to know that before she pulls the gun out of her desk drawer – and I ought to be aware that the gun is there as well. I expect the writer to lay the groundwork for later action and feel cheated if too many objects or skills appear for the first time just at the moment the character needs them.

When it comes to such details in writing, my critique partners will confirm that I’m a stickler. While that’s true, I am not immune from making such mistakes myself – we all do, don’t we? This kind of error is to be expected in early drafts and is one reason critique partners are invaluable. When critiquing, I rarely miss contradictory details (it’s always easier to spot them in someone else’s work!) – when a character sits down on one page and then sits again on the next page without standing in between or when hair color changes from one scene to another – and point out instances where the groundwork needs to be laid earlier in the story to avoid a convenient, magically-appearing solution. This is not something to worry about in a first draft; such mistakes should, however, be eliminated in the revision process.

Recently I’ve found that the more aware I’ve become of contradictory details and the lack of necessary groundwork when critiquing, the more I’ve notice the small details of groundwork that is included, not only in the books or stories I read but in television shows, movies, live drama, and any other media with a story line. And when I notice such a telling detail, I have more and more success at guessing what happens later in the story. While this removes the element of surprise, it doesn’t ruin the story for me, since I still enjoy seeing how the author gets to that outcome.

My ability to notice the details was brought to my attention last weekend when my family went to the historic Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, which puts on excellent performances, to see In The Heights, a recently written musical which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009 and won four Tony Awards. The action in the musical takes place in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. The opening musical number, a lively hip-hop and dance piece involving most of the cast, provides background information on the characters and setting. The primary character and singer in the opening number is Usnavi (an unusual name – the funny story behind it is revealed later in the story), owner of the small corner bodega which most of the residents visit for coffee, groceries, and lottery tickets during the opening number.

The sale of lottery tickets caught my attention.My husband told me after the show that he hadn’t noticed that detail. From their later reaction, most of the audience hadn’t paid much attention to it either. It was one of many small things in the opening number, but I noticed it because, as a writer, I wouldn’t have included that detail unless it had some importance later in the story. Since the setting is a poor working class neighborhood, a lottery win would make a big difference to the characters and perhaps to the community.

As the story progressed and we got to know the characters better, I speculated about whose winning the lottery would most benefit the community and made a guess, which proved to be right. (But I won’t ruin the story by revealing that character’s name.) When the winner emerged from her home to sing a solo number, I knew the reason for her reflections in the song and was not surprised when she pulled out the lottery ticket at the end. The rest of the audience gasped in astonishment and delight, and I smiled. The author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, had done an excellent job in laying the groundwork subtly enough to make the situation believable and still achieve surprise. Now that’s skill!

Has being a writer affected how you read a book or watch a movie or play? How?

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Responses

  1. Yes, you are excellent at the contradictory details! 🙂 But it’s a wonderful skill to have, especially in this day and age of cut and paste, where it’s so easy to move large chunks of text around. Just the other day I combined two scenes and had my protags start out in a hayloft and suddenly in mid-scene be in a parking lot!

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  2. I find I read like a writer now, and a story has to be very good to suck me in. I remember a tv script writer’s interview one time. He said that the reason one of the characters hurt herself, was so that the hero would need to take off his jacket to put under her head, so that later, he could be scratched by the beast, on his bare arm. So they could show the wound and the blood. It was necessary to go back and change that little detail in the script so that the middle would work. I’ve done the same thing in my own writing. If, at sone point in the middle, I find a character needs a knife, for example, I go back to somewhere in the beginning and give her a knife. I’ve heard of some writers starting with the last line of a story and writing the whole story from that point. I’ve done that myself. The easiest stories, I’ve found are when you know how it goes and you just write it down. Provided you’re not interrupted to pieces of course, in your personal life.
    Anyway, great post. Thank you for sharing.

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