Thursday, 28 June 2012

Making use of detail

Years ago while driving along a country lane I spotted a white plastic bag being blown in the wind over the hedgerows. It inspired the start of a story, in which an impressionable young woman driving at night saw a similar sight, and believed she’d seen a tiny angel. The angel (or was it just a carrier bag?) hit her windscreen. My character, Nina, went home and told her husband what she’d seen. She was worried she’d injured the angel. He, of course, told her not to be so silly, and they had a bit of a row about it. Nina went off to bed, still worried.
 
Then I got all lyrical and, keeping with the angel theme, had Nina put on a long white satin nightie. She was upset, mopped her tears with a tissue which she then shredded, into feather-like pieces.
 
And then I was stuck. Had no idea where to go next with the story. I took it to my writing class and read it out, as far as I’d got. Those people were amazing and came up with lots of inspirational comments which gave me an idea for how to finish the story. The class tutor, Della Galton, said something I’ve never forgotten and which is the whole point of this post – she picked up on my bits about the white nightie and shredded tissue and said although these were lovely details I should only keep them in the story if they were important – they couldn’t stay there just for the sake of it. It’s the old adage – kill your darlings. If a bit of writing has no purpose in the story, ie doesn’t move the story on in any way, then however beautiful it is it should be cut because it isn’t earning its keep. This is especially important in a short story where there’s no room for superfluous words.
 
I ended the story by having Nina so worried about the angel that she went back out again in her car, dressed in her nightie, to the spot where she’d seen it. And there, in the ditch beside the road, was a cyclist who’d hit a pothole, broken his leg and was in a bad way. He mumbled something about ‘his angel’. Nina’s husband turned up – he’d discovered her missing, and got worried. He’d seen the shredded tissue and remembered her story about having seen an angel, so he had followed her to the spot she’d described. He had a phone so was able to call an ambulance for the cyclist. When Nina told him what the cyclist had muttered about also seeing an angel, Nina’s husband laughed. The poor cyclist was delirious with pain, and seeing Nina standing there in her long white nightie he must have imagined she was his guardian angel. Which actually, she was, in her way, as she was the one who found him.
 
I sold this story twice – to My Weekly and to Australian That’s Life. The story worked – you could side with Nina and believe in angels or side with her husband and accept the rational explanation. The details I’d put in were all used again later in the story. The story ends in a satisfying way – Nina and her husband make up, as he realises that her instincts helped save the cyclist, and she accepts that her vision of a tiny angel might have been a touch fanciful after all.
 
Since writing that story, I’ve often thought about what I learned from it, particularly regarding making good use of detail. Those little details like my white satin nightie and the shredded tissue can bring a story to life, but they’ve got to be there for a purpose, not just as pretty prose. By all means write them in on the first draft, but if they don’t end up adding anything to the story, chop them out later on (or, change your story so they do become essential). I try to keep this in mind always, even when writing my novel. Obviously in a novel there’s more space for description and you can include some which is just there for scene-setting, but it all works so much better if every single piece of description also helps add to the story in some way.

14 comments:

Karen said...

Wise words, well worth remembering. I find it helps if I leave a story and go back to it a day or so later - that's when those 'darlings' leap out!

Your story sounds great, by the way!

Geraldine Ryan said...

That sounds like a fabulous story, Womag! A lovely post too. Sometimes we keep going with stories because we happen to have fallen in love with our writing and are reluctant to murder our darlings. It hurts, it really does. I reckon for every serial I write I cut the equivalent number - about 13000 words - by the time I've done.

Kath said...

I remember that story, Womag, I remember thinking I would like to have written it - it just worked really well.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

What a lovely, informative post - and I love the sound of that angel story!

womagwriter said...

Oh wow, Kath, can't believe you remember the story - it was years ago! Your comment has made me grin stupidly. I did like the story but remember it most because of the lesson I learned when writing it, about the details. (And the other lesson - when stuck, get your writing class to come up with an ending!)

Old Kitty said...

Love how you constructed a story out spotting discarded plastic one sees (sadly) everyday! Wonderful!! I am in AWE!

Take care
x

Anonymous said...

Lovely post Womag - thanks. KH

Maggie May said...

Fabulous tips. Many thanks.

Jean Bull said...

Thank you for a really useful post. I found the first sentence intriguing, and it made me read on. This must mean your story still has drawing power!

Dolores Doolittle said...

Inspirational post and so very useful - thank you Womag

Alice said...

Thank you for this post, Womag. It couldn't have come at a better time, for me, as I'm currently writing a story loaded with extra details! Sadly, I think that when it comes to the edit, most of them will have to be pruned...
Your story sounds brilliant!

Della Galton said...

Hi Kath I remember that story too - so very evocative. Like your post. And how true about the detail. Thankyou.

Vikki (www.the-view-outside.com) said...

What a beautiful story :)

Xx

Val said...

Great post, thank you! And I agree with the others ... the story sounds really great, I'd love to read the full version.