Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Detail and description

by Bill Kirton

I have enormous respect for Elmore Leonard and I’m forever quoting his 10 ‘rules’ for writers. They really do make sense, especially his exhortation to ‘leave out the part that readers tend to skip’ and get rid of anything that ‘sounds like writing’. But, while I agree in principle with rules 8 ‘Avoid detailed descriptions of characters’ and 9 ‘Don’t go into great detail describing places and things’, I think detail, even in descriptions, is a useful writer’s tool.

Whenever I give talks or workshops on writing short stories, I stress how great an impact you can create with details, and the thing I quote isn’t a story but a song. It’s Ode to Billy-Joe – the Bobby Gentry hit from what feels like 2 centuries ago. I’m sure you know it but, just in case there are some who don’t, it tells the story of a small, domestic tragedy (Billy-Joe McAllister has jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge). But the thing that gives it its impact is the ordinariness of the context in which it’s happened and in which the story’s being told:
Poppa said to Momma as he passed around the black-eyed peas,
‘Billy-Joe never had a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits please’.
It’s the apparently trivial details of the ‘black-eyed peas’ and the ‘pass the biscuits’ that make the suicide so poignant. They make it real. Stendhal, who figures quite often in things I say about writing and novels, called them ‘petits faits vrais’ (little true facts) and said they give authenticity to a story.

I’m sure Mr Leonard would agree that there are plenty of exceptions which disprove his ‘rules’. His first, for example is ‘Never open a book with weather’. But the first words of Bleak House are ‘Implacable November weather’. Then, after brief mentions of muddy streets and smoke, comes the wonderful (and often-quoted) passage about fog:

‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck.’

That’s much more than weather. The first time I read (or heard) it was at school, when football (and not even girls and certainly not literature) was all I cared about, but it’s stayed with me – its rhythms, its sinister threats, its oppressiveness – and all deriving from its visual impact. Detailed descriptions for their own sake get in the way. They may be beautiful sunsets, wonderful vistas across the glens, tumbling seas or simply navy-blue serge trousers and waistcoats, but if they hold up the pace or keep the people out of the picture, they’re intrusions. But if you use them consciously, deliberately, they don’t just have an effect on characters, they can create them, too. 


Jaden Terrell said...

Bill, I love Elmore Leonard's rules. I especially love the original version, in which every rule ended with something akin to, "...unless you do it as well as [x wonderful author], in which case, feel free to do it whenever you like.

I think your lovely excerpt about fog fits into that category.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks Beth. The thing about Leonard is he makes it all seem so effortless yet it's obvious that he achieves what he does through very hard (editing) work. As for Dickens - he was inexhaustible.