8.10.2017

The Way of Pedestrians

In a world filled with workshops and writing coaches, I am frequently beset with the outcomes of what may have begun as sage advice. Avoid adverbs like the plague. Don’t ever use the word “said.” Forms of the verb “to be” should always be replaced with an active verb. One of the more baleful results comes about from the dictum to paint a textual picture.

While I am an advocate of the telling detail, what usually emerges from the fair cabin hideaway is a profusion of details about common pursuits. It is not enough to write: “She walked down the street.” Details are added to create greater accuracy: “She walked down the sidewalk on the side of the street.” Now, I ask you, how is the second version superior to the first? As a reader, we assume that people walk down sidewalks and sidewalks are located to the side of a street. So yes, the setting is more detailed, but the added details are wasting our time.

Let’s return to the phrase “telling detail.” That means: what sets the sidewalk apart from others? It could be a “cracked sidewalk,” in which case you might add that the town where your hero lives saw its heyday in the 1970s, before the crankcase plant was shut down. That would tell me something. The character could be walking not on the sidewalk but in the road, a popular suburban practice (especially with baby strollers) that separates the younger generation from the less free older one.

Adding details in writing can be likened to adding details to an anecdote told at a party. If the storyteller is explaining why she was an hour late—an hour late!—in picking up Henry from practice, we don’t necessarily want to learn the details about how late her own mother used to be, or the old jalopy she used to drive, or commentary about women of that generation. The listener is likely to experience the mental equivalent of tapping her toe.

Details of the written sort operate the same way. We don’t want to know that the character opened the car door, slid into the bucket seat, put the key in the ignition, cranked the engine, and then put the lever in reverse. All that stuff could be skipped. What I want to know is: did she nearly back out into a passing car? Why didn’t she look that way? Does that indicate something about her mental state because of a terrible thing that just happened?

What tends to be forgotten once beyond the hallowed precincts of writing advice givers is the best advice you’ll ever be given. Use details to define character. You want to get inside your hero’s head? Make his world revolve around him. Everything that helps us to know him better is a detail worth including.

“Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret.”
—Matthew Arnold

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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