The importance of craft and significant detail in fiction
(Note: This essay is in the middle of a rewrite, so you may find inconsistencies and redundancies here and there. It was one of the more popular posts at the old version of the site, though, so I'm throwing it out there as-is, despite the issues. I also have to give credit to my friends, teachers, and mentors, among them Kij Johnson (the first professional to tell me that I should be writing for a living), Matt Schmeer, Greg Luthi, Aaron Rosenberg, Erick "The Story Doctor" King, and especially my dear friend Lane Robins--aka Lyn Benedict--for seeing potential in me, guiding me, ripping my work apart when need be, and helping me learn, and to the Wednesday Night Writers, as well as to Janet Burroway--whom I have never met--for her excellent textbook, "Writing Fiction; A Guide to the Narrative Craft." I am by no means an expert; again, I'm just passing on a little of what I've learned along the way.)
I hear a lot of would-be fiction writers say they "don't believe" in studying writing. They fear that to do so will force them to write by some preset formula and destroy their "personal styles." Nothing could be further from the truth. If you look at some of the greats--who have wildly divergent styles--you will find that they almost universally studied the craft. Not all of them took classes or read books about writing, but they still studied the craft in one way or another, even if only by reading works they admired and paying attention to what worked and didn't work for them. Yes, insidious, isn't it, this thing they call learning? If you truly love something, you may not always be aware that you're studying it.
Look at some of the greats in other arts. Mozart was a musical genius who reportedly began composing at age five, but while he certainly had talent going for him, he studied music as he got older. Studying music didn't diminish him as a composer; it allowed him to build on his natural talents and use them more effectively. Even if you're more talented at writing than Mozart was at composing, studying the craft can still improve your art, and if you truly love your art, why wouldn't you want to push yourself learn more and do better? Me? I want to learn everything I can, gain all the skills I can, and play around with all the different ways I can use them, because the more I do so, the more freedom I have to explore and clarify my own creative visions and present them in such a way that others can appreciate.
What many people seem to be afraid of is that learning the craft means following some rigid set of rules. And they're wrong. Oh, following a strict set of rules can be a good exercise, especially when you're first starting out, but in fact, it is impossible to follow every "rule" of writing ever set down, because many of those rules contradict one another. Sure, there are a lot of general guidelines espoused by various teachers, but a good craftsperson knows when to break them, and how to do so for maximum effect. (I like to think of the so-called rules of writing as "strongly-worded suggestions." Take this little essay, for example; I'm breaking lots of rules, just as I do in my fiction. But I know which ones I'm breaking, why I'm doing so, and a couple of dozen other ways I could break them to achieve various effects.)
Because there is no rule that can tell you, nor teacher who can show you, how to best write your story. It's your story, after all. What rules can do is give you a starting point, and what teachers can do is point to examples, like, "here's yet another way to build tension in this kind of scene," and so on.
That doesn't mean the "rules" are worthless, though. They have their purposes. In fact, it can be a helpful to practice by taking a fairly narrow set of rules and restrictions and seeing what you can accomplish within them. Learning those rules and practicing them can, among other things, help you identify your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, figure out why something "just isn't working," or better yet, why something works beyond your wildest expectations. The rules are there to help you learn the basics so that when you've got them down cold, you can use the ones you choose and soar above the others. As someone once said, "Learn the rules, then break them with grace and style." Or as Strunk and White's Elements of Style puts it, you should feel free to break any and all rules rather than write something inelegant.
One of novelist Mike Stackpole’s favorite analogies for writing is carpentry. As someone who has worked construction in the past, I can verify that the two have much in common. No sane and honest person calls him or her self a carpenter without at least some understanding of how to measure, cut (evenly), and fashion wood into a reasonably stable structure, or how to hammer a nail without bending it.
For that matter, how can a carpenter or a writer reach his or her full potential without knowing what tools are available and what their purposes are? Many tools have multiple uses, and many tasks can be performed with your choice of tools. You may choose one tool over another, or even eschew all the traditional tools for one of your own making, but until you learn about the tools, how can you choose? And even once you've got the tools down, how do you figure out how far apart to put those joists when you're building a deck, how much concrete you'll need for the supports, or for that matter, even how much lumber to order? The answer: Unless you've got some training and experience, not very reliably.
Still, I constantly hear from those who want to be fiction writers that they have no interest in learning the craft. This is akin to a carpenter refusing to learn about wood types and structural integrity, preferring to rely on intuition and gut instinct alone. That “carpenter” may be able to cut and hammer some boards together, but will produce something of value only by chance. So it is with would-be writers who refuse to learn about the process of writing.
Part of the problem is that since we all learn to read, spell, and string sentences together in school (well, some of us do, anyway), most people think that the only other thing a writer needs is the ability to come up with a good story idea. Stringing sentences together in sequence to tell a story (The alliteration here is unintentional--honest.) is not enough, though. The best story idea will fail to engage readers if told poorly, which is to say, without craft.
Let's try another analogy.
As a martial artist of more years than I care to admit (because it reminds me of how close I am to my AARP card), I've been on both the student end and the teacher end, and time and again I am reminded that among the first things a new student usually needs to learn are how to stand, breathe, and make a fist.
Oh, sure, untrained people can do those things after a fashion; they can keep from falling over, avoid suffocation, and hold a spoon. They might even be able to throw a basic punch or kick, or win a fight against someone without much training. But that doesn't make them martial artists. Martial artists learn stances and ways of breathing which help maximize balance, enhance offensive or defensive capabilities, focus physical and mental energy, land (and take) harder blows, move more quickly, avoid tiring easily, and so on, and a proper fist, with proper conditioning, can smash through wood or bone without itself breaking. Big difference there.
In addition, a student of the martial arts learns myriad techniques and combinations thereof, from the simple to the complex. If serious, he or she practices until those techniques are perfect in form and become reflexes, and along the way will develop his or her own unique set of favored techniques for different sets of circumstances. Far from being limited, the serious martial artist finds his or her options and style enhanced by a plethora of choices. A good teacher will expect students to develop their own unique fighting style. Those who study several different arts find their options expanded even more.
It's like that with writing. The more you learn, the more choices you have for filling out, extending, and expanding your own personal style. You'll find your own favorite techniques, be better able to identify when you're falling into a habitual trap, and how to get out of that trap.
But until you have studied the craft, even if all your study is autodidactic, you will have no style of your own of any worth unless you are a prodigy of writing in much the same way that Mozart was a prodigy of music, and even then, your writing will be improved by study. Even Mozart had to study to learn the finer points of his craft (and I doubt anyone would accuse him of writing formula music). Learning the craft gives you the tools and techniques with which to express your own ideas in your manner of choosing, and in an effective manner. In the same way that a martial artist learns to make every movement count, the student of writing learns to make every word count.
There is not enough room here for a detailed explanation of all the tools in a writer’s toolbox, but there is perhaps enough room to paint one of the most important lessons in large strokes.
The first thing one needs to understand is that all fiction consists of the judicious selection and revelation of “significant detail” (thanks to Janet Burroway for that term), and in finding the most effective method with which to give those details to the reader to achieve the desired effect. Learning the craft of writing does not dictate which details are counted as significant in any given work, nor how to present those details. Rather, it (hopefully) provides one with the skills to judge those things in light of the desired end result and choose from a variety of options. Just as a serious painter learns what combinations of materials, brushes, strokes, and pigments he or she can use to achieve different effects and guide the viewers’ eyes through the painting, a serious writer must learn how various writing techniques can achieve the desired effects and guide the reader through the story.
What constitutes significant detail varies from story to story, from desired effect to desired effect, and from character to character. Is the feel of that glass in your character's hand significant? Maybe. Are you using it to show us something? Is it there to provide a pause, for pacing? Does it serve a purpose, even if only to break up the monotony of a dialogue-heavy scene or serve as a sensation-memory prompt? That's not to say you must know the purpose of everything you put into a story, because you can't. You won't. None of us do. Some things simply feel right in the moment, and it's only later, looking back, that you'll understand why. Sometimes it will take someone else mentioning it to you before you realize that yes, that's how it fit. That's why it had to be there. At the very least, though, even if you're not sure whether it helps the story, make sure it isn't getting in the way.
A writer who wants to build suspense will choose certain details, while one playing up the comic aspect of a scene may choose entirely different details, or simply a different style of presentation, and even if going for basically the same end effect, any dozen writers will find a dozen different ways to go about it. Among other things, the details a character is most apt to notice, whether about another character, a sunrise, or a room, help to define and inform that character. An average club-goer may note the songs and artists played, how loud the music is, and whether he or she feels the music danceable, as well as the number and apparent availability of members of his or her gender of choice. A young former disk jockey in the same place and time might note all of the above, but is also likely to note the relative beats per minute of the songs played, the degree of smoothness of mixes and transition, and how well the disk jockey on duty rotates people on and off the dance floor. These are significant details in the eyes of the character, therefore they may be important to us, the readers.
They were playing deep House, not his favorite music, but he could cope. Two reasonably attractive brunettes swayed and stumbled barefoot on the dance floor, laughing, almost in time with the music. The DJ, if you could call him that, missed another mix, and David winced—What the hell was he thinking, going straight from 180 bpm to 220? David twitched his fingers involuntarily. Even on his worst nights he could spin circles around this guy. Well, it was a Tuesday, after all—traditionally the deadest night in the bar business--so the kid probably wasn’t their A squad. Besides, David wasn’t here for a job; he was here for information. He flipped open his phone again to look at the time and check for messages. One a.m., and still no voicemail. Where the hell was his contact?
This scene could go on as long as necessary if it adds something to the story, although the reader would have to have been told earlier what bpm means. On the other hand, if giving these details does not deepen our understanding of a character, foreshadow something, set a mood, or provide something else of value, we can leave them out or summarize.
The crowd was sparse, the drinks were watered, and the DJ sucked ass. Worst of all, his contact never showed.
Likewise, how these details are presented plays a huge role in the readers’ experience. A detail calmly and succinctly stated will have a completely different impact than a dramatic exclamation. That is not to say either is inherently better than the other—Merely different. Again, the method of revelation is chosen to evoke the response the writer desires from the reader.
He ran up the stairs and pounded on the door, but no one answered. He glanced behind him to see if he was being watched. The coast was clear. He ran back down the stairs, and around to the side of the house to hide, watching and waiting.
We’re not completely certain what the character’s intentions are, but it sounds as though he is up to no good. That little snippet is also incredibly boring. I can give just a couple more details, though—significant details—and present them differently, as follows.
He ran up the stairs and pounded on the door with his fist until it hurt, then kicked at the door, over and over, hard enough to leave scuff marks and little dents. Please, somebody answer before they found him. He turned back to the street, praying, don’t let them be watching--not now--and ran down and around to the side of the house to hide and watch and wait, stifling his breathing and squeezing his eyes against the sting and salt of his tears. Not like this. Please, not like this.
Now we have a completely different understanding of what is happening, and an entirely different mood. All I did was add a few details and present them differently. Notice what kind of details I added—It wasn’t important here to know what color the door was, or the style in which the house had been built. These could have been significant, but in this case, I decided that the protagonist was too rattled to notice or care. Besides, giving these details would serve no real purpose, and would detract from the urgency of the scene. Consequently, we are not told these things.
Also, it is usually better to show significant detail instead of telling about it. Again, the key word here is significant. Description can be either significant or insignificant, depending on the situation. If the point of the above snippet were to emphasize disparity between the protagonist's lifestyle and that of the homeowner, a description of the house and lawn <em>may </em>(or may not) have been significant. Too many would-be writers have no idea what details are significant, and so in addition to telling instead of showing, describe every person or object in a scene in yawningly complete detail. Let me give you a snippet from the critically-acclaimed fantasy novel Maledicte, by my friend and writing group member Lane Robins, and then a bad rewrite of the same passage.
The boy snarled, and Gilly walked on, leaving the boy to flounder his way through the drifts, hampered by the heavy coat. Gilly reached the coach long before the boy, climbed into it, and sat sipping whiskey-laced tea from the flask. The boy staggered up, white from head to toe with blown snow, and shuddering with chill. His eyelashes were frosted and his face showed signs of suspicious dampness.
This is showing. We don’t need to be told that Gilly is annoyed or that the boy is angry, that it is cold and snowy, nor that the boy has been crying. We are shown.
That the boy is, "floundering through the drifts, hampered by the heavy coat," tells us that there has been a heavy snow, and that the boy is likely wearing a coat to which he is unused, implying that not only was he unprepared for this, but that he may have borrowed, found, or stolen the coat.
That Gilly walks away, goes to the coach, and sits sipping tea shows that Gilly is in charge here, or has the "upper hand" in some other way. That the tea is laced with whiskey is a nice bit of verisimilitude, as well as providing further contrast between Gilly's situation and that of the boy--By the time the boy reaches the coach Gilly is, presumably, warmed both inside and out, while the boy is shuddering, with frosted eyelashes, snow all over him, and a tear-streaked face. This reinforces that the boy is completely out of his element, both figuratively and literally, while Gilly is at home and in charge here.
We can infer a few other things about the characters here, too. The boy is obviously of a stubborn, volatile mindset, while Gilly is cool, calm, and patient. Gilly doesn't rise to the boy's snarl, but walks away into comfort and lets the boy come to him.
This situation also serves as an illustration and a metaphor for the boy's situation in the larger story. He is--not just in the snowdrifts, but in the story at large--floundering, upset, out of control, and dependent upon others, but not pleased with that situation.
And now, with a few different details and a different presentation, I give you...
A very bad rewrite:
The boy was angry and unappreciative, which annoyed Gilly, so Gilly left him there to walk through the drifts by himself and trip over the luxuriant, but much too large, beaver-skin coat Vornati had loaned him. Gilly got to the coach first, and enjoyed the taste of the whiskey-laced tea as he drank it from the engraved silver flask. The boy finally staggered up with snow all over him. He was obviously cold, and looked like he had been crying.
Notice that although the rewrite gives us more detail, it is, frankly, boring and stale. It doesn’t give relevant, or significant, detail. What I have to ask myself is, what does the reader need to know in order to make this scene work the way I want it to? In a different kind of scene, the type of coat or that the flask is engraved silver might be important, but not here. And I shouldn't need to state that Gilly enjoyed the tea, although it might be worth indicating if he didn't, for a couple of different reasons I won't go into at the moment. Also, by telling (“Gilly was annoyed,” “He was obviously cold, and looked like he had been crying,” etc.), we rob the reader of his or her participation in the story. Another thing wrong with the rewrite is that I have substituted unnecessary adjectives and irrelevant details for significant detail and description.
How does one sort through all of this and learn to show rather than tell? To separate significant from insignificant detail? To know when an adjective (or a scene, or a character, or an entire story) is best tossed into the scrap heap? By studying the craft of writing, and by experimenting with different projects and methods of storytelling until he or she is able to achieve the effects that he or she sets out to achieve. Far from forcing one into a formula, learning more skills and methods of crafting a story frees the writer to explore more options.
(A quick note about style choices: Since the setting of Maledicte strongly resembles Europe during the Regency period, Lane chose a more flowery style of writing than she uses in her Shadows Inquiries urban fantasy/mystery series written under the name of Lyn Benedict. Style variations in both narration and dialogue can help set a mood or lend verisimilitude--For example, in Maledicte and its sequel Kings and Assassins, Lane's characters seldom, if ever, use the word, "problem," because while most readers may not be aware of this, "problem" was not a common word during the Regency period.)
If we return to our hypothetical carpenter, this analogy holds true. Learning to hold and swing a hammer in such a way as to drive a nail without damaging the wood, the nail, or a stray thumb, does not remove creativity from the craft. Learning the best materials for different types of projects does not force the carpenter to build by formula. Instead, the carpenter, like the writer, finds an expanded menu of options at his or her disposal.
As a final note to any would-be writers who feel that none of this “studying the craft,” business applies to them—please become accountants, or acrobats, or scientists, or anything else that has nothing to do with writing fiction. We’ll both be happier that way.