Wednesday, May 4, 2011

One special detail is all you need

Something I have become more and more aware of is the way authors I enjoy use the special detail that conveys the whole picture.  Someone from my MFA program, for example, described an old Irishman as having eyebrows like hamsters.  Picture that!  You don't need any more details, do you?  I certainly didn't.  And this master detail that conveys it all shows in full bloom in stories by Chekhov.

Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer, decribed how Chekhov broke all the rules for short story writing but said she can't put his short stories down.  I started reading these stories, and I completely agree.  And I think that his use of the one detail is part of the reason the stories work so well.  Of course, Chekhov had other methods as well, including providing a slice of life instead of a nice neat ending.  But the telling detail is so well chosen in Chekhov stories that I often just stop and marvel about how much you can read out of a single detail.  If you haven't tried to describe things with ultimate economy like this, it takes a lot of thought.  You can't just remove all the details but one and have it convey it all.  That special detail has to bring the whole scene into focus, has to be the detail that implies the rest.  You may have to think about what it could be for a few days before you find it.  But it is very worthwhile.  People may read your story and say things like " Such economy of description!"  The underlying secret is not just economy, but worth per word!


S. Wright said...

While the art of writing is definitely in the details, it is especially effective when words evoke a sense of taste, touch, sight or smell.

Lorelei said...

Yes, those sensory inputs are easy to ignore in favor of just sight, but they add so much! Especially smell, I find.