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Another Episode of the Reality Show

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warning-300x200.jpg Last month, I talked about the importance of keeping your writing real.  This month come the caveats and other notes.

Some commenters last month asked about how keeping your writing real — using authentic and specific details in your descriptions — relates to your point of view.  And, yes, what your viewpoint character notices depends on both who they are and how they’re feeling at the moment.  If your viewpoint character is too thick to notice much of anything, then you have to adjust your descriptions to match.

D. E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book is about a woman who lives in a small town and makes the mistake of writing a book based on her neighbors, all of whom recognize themselves in the story once it’s published, except for Colonel Weatherhead. He fails to see himself in the book’s “Major Waterfoot,” who falls in love with a neighbor in the book, “Miss Mildmay.”  But in the book, Major Waterfoot is living a sad and lonely life that Colonel Weatherhead finds hauntingly familiar.  And that recognition – or lack of recognition – leads him to court and eventually propose to his neighbor, Miss Bold.

If you look carefully at scenes from the Colonel’s point of view elsewhere in Miss Buncle’s Book, they show the obliviousness that led to his engagement.  A tool shed is “a dark musty place (as toolsheds so often are) filled with worn-out tools, and a wheelbarrow and a lawnmower, and festooned with spiders’ webs . . . “  Note that the only things he notices are the things he will run into or trip over.  Later we hear about a walk home when “it was still raining and everything was dripping wet,” as so often happens after a rain.  Clearly the Colonel is not the most observant of men, and Stevenson shows this by leaving out details in all of his descriptions.

It can be tricky to introduce reality-based details that stand out without giving the impression that they are going to be critical to the story.  One idiosyncratic detail, especially in a murder mystery, is why regular mystery readers often guess the murderer beforehand.  The best way around this is to ground all your descriptions as much in reality as you can.  If your main character is particularly observant – and many detectives are — then your entire world will feel sharp and real.  And, in fact, your key clues are more likely to go unnoticed, even though they may be striking, if all of your details are original, reality-based observations.

I’ve written before about how Sue Grafton manages to sneak clues about her murders past readers because Kinsey Milhone is such an acute observer.  Consider this description of a character’s lunch from L is for Lawless.

Chester banged a cast-iron skillet on the burner, flipped the gas on, and tossed in a knuckle of butter, which began to sizzle within seconds.

. . .

The bologna was pale pink, the size of a bread-and-butter plate, a perfect circle of compacted piggy by-products.  Chester tossed in the meat without even pausing to remove the rim of plastic casing.  While the bologna was frying, he slathered mayonnaise on one slice of bread and mustard on the other.  He shook hot sauce across the yellow mustard in perfect red polka dots.

. . .

The air of the kitchen was now scented with browning bologna, which was curling up around the edges to form a little bowl with butter puddled  in the center.  I could feel myself getting dizzy from the sensory overload.  I said, “I’ll pay you four hundred dollars if you fix me one of those.”

Chester glanced at me sharply and for the first time, he smiled.  “You want toasted?”

“You’re the chef.  It’s your choice,” I said.


This is not Chekhov’s fried bologna sandwich – it has nothing to do with the story.  But readers never really think it does because Kinsey notices this sort of thing all the time.


Remember, when you’re describing a character or location, you are going for quality, not quantity.  I think it was a desire to give readers a clear, precise picture of a given setting or character that led Victorian novelists into page-long descriptions that modern readers have little patience with.  Today, this excess tends to come in the form of lists, creating a sense of a place or character by piling on stacks of mildly distinct details.

For instance, consider this description of a crowded servant’s room from Jo Baker’s Longborne.

Sarah and Polly were obliged to share their room with the Gardiners’ maid, Martha, who had ginger curls that she was very proud of, and a pallet on the floor, which, she complained, was stuffed with broken pots, and who talked about London, about dances and alehouses and beaux, Cock-and-Hen clubs and bullock-hunting on a Sunday.  Polly sat bundled up in her shawls and blankets, looking like a caterpillar in its cocoon, her mouth hanging open at the girl’s tall tales.  Sarah propped her head in her hand, smiling stiffly, distracted, dreading that at any moment there would be mention of Ptolemy Bingley, Esquire . . . ; dreading too that she would blush and be noticed and be teased for it . . .

Instead of piling on details – all the different diversions in London, five different reactions on Sarah’s part — and expecting your readers to pick out what’s common between them, it’s far better if you choose the one, unique, surprising detail that anchors a given setting or character in reality.  For instance, Polly’s cocooning herself is an original image, but it’s lost in the flurry.


Which brings up another point.  While all your writing should be solidly grounded in reality, you most need to pay attention to authentic, original details when you first introduce a new character or location, or the story takes a particularly significant turn.  This is when you’re bringing your readers’ imaginations into play – when they need sharp details to feel like they’ve entered your world.

Consider this description of a character readers are just meeting, from Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle.  “The new curate seemed quite a nice young man, but what a pity it was that his combinations [long underwear] showed, tucked carelessly into his socks when he sat down.”  That one detail about how he wore his long johns gives you enough to jumpstart your imagination as to who he is.  It also reveals the viewpoint character’s irreverent eye.


Finally, remember that all of the details that ground your story in reality cannot feel forced.  If you’re straining to find something original to say about a location, or giving minor characters idiosyncrasies just so they’ll stand out, your readers are going to feel the strain.  Instead, simply close your eyes, and imagine yourself as your viewpoint character.  Pay attention to what they see, what they hear, what they smell.  Give your character control over the observations, and you won’t need to force the details.  The details you need will come to you.


So where else can you see the desire to keep things real go wrong?  Have you run into your own examples of lists or details out of control?  Who do you admire who does it right?  And are you now hungry for a fried bologna sandwich?



About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.


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