FINDING THE ‘TELLING’ DETAIL
One of the most gratifying compliments I receive about my novels is that I bring the settings to life for readers in such a way that they feel they themselves are there along with the characters, experiencing what they are experiencing. I’m often asked how I achieve that.
Some of this ability is natural. But a lot of it is practice. I’ve worked particularly hard at finding the ‘telling’ detail of a scene or character: The one thing that will help the reader to see that scene or character as vividly as if it were right there before them.
I am a person who notices things, and not always the things that everyone else does. The human brain has been wired to sense danger before beauty (it’s more important for our survival to pay attention to the rustle of a stalking sabre-tooth tiger in the bushes than it is to notice the feathery, delicate formation of a cirrus cloud) This explains why we have a bias towards negativity: We imagine worst case scenarios in order to avoid them; recall criticisms long after we have forgotten compliments to keep ourselves ‘safe’; or obsess about the dimpled thighs of our otherwise fabulously healthy bodies. However, somewhere in my own personal evolution I seemed to have developed a knack ignoring the ugly and honing in on beauty. The fact that I’ve become good at describing it might be the clue to why this is so. The more I notice it, the more I take a moment to describe it, the more I remember it. In this way, the knack of noticing beauty gets fixed into the neural pathways of my brain in the same way mathematicians recall formulas and composers conjure up musical notes. Has this preoccupation ever put me in danger? You bet. I nearly got wiped out by a car once because I was so entranced by the beauty of a jacaranda tree in full bloom that I crossed the road without looking.
Describing ugly things is a greater effort for me because I really can’t stand them. Therefore I rarely practice this skill. But writers must be able to describe life in all its contrasts – both the gory and the sublime; the kind as well the cruel. So alas, The Mystery Woman, had some challenging scenes for me to write, especially those that involved – or even hinted at – cruelty towards the whales. I also couldn’t stand it when Stefan’s gorgeous Italianate mansion burned to the ground – I had so loved creating it! But it was necessary for the plot.
As well as being able to describe, a writer must be able to convey that description in a way that is meaningful to readers.
As part of my final proof-read of The Mystery Woman, Roslyn, a wonderful friend of mine with a keen eye for detail, checked through the manuscript for anything that might trip readers up. Here are some of the things she called me out on:
- Rubbing his bald pate – ‘For goodness sake, don’t be so pretentious. Just say “bald head”.’
- Slipper chairs – ‘Only people as obsessed with interior design as you will be able to picture exactly what these are.’
- Admiring Rebecca’s matelassé taffeta dress – ‘Who are you writing for? Fashion designers and dressmakers?’
Roslyn’s advice made me realise that what creates the perfect ‘telling’ detail is not necessarily specificity or specialist knowledge. The whole point of description is to communicate to the reader and the best description is the one that produces an emotional response.
When I described George Pike as having a face like a piranha, I conveyed not only his physical appearance but his character in an instant. The very idea of a man with a mouth like carnivorous fish makes us cringe. The fact that he and his wife have ‘his and her’ trophy cabinets says a lot more about their marriage than a long-winded explanation that they are competitive with each other.
Whether you are a writer or not, it enriches your life to notice the ‘telling’ details in the world around you. Be aware of what evokes in an emotional response in you: A tattered hem on an otherwise immaculately dressed old lady? The screechy, parrot-like voice of a co-worker? The nicotine-stained teeth of your yoga teacher?
Then take the time to write these details down in a journal. Doing so will teach your brain to see the vividness of the world around you. What seemed ordinary might become poignant, what was ugly might even become beautiful.
Oh, but one piece of advice – be careful when crossing the road to view a jacaranda tree raining violet petals on the ground beneath it!