Stuck on a Flashpoint

Zeroing in on a significant detail deepens your prose. That principle makes intuitive sense, because a more exact verbal picture is more illustrative than a passing sketch.  Let’s take that idea one step further. How do you apply it in a way that will have the most emotional impact on the reader? Describing the pebbly corrosion on a rusty nail head is all well and good, but the reader isn’t going to be moved by it.

You can try lingering on an important detail. First consider a physical act, since that is closer to a description than a mental state. Let’s say Ted, in trying to find out why his law partner has been acting so strange lately, ends up in a back hallway of a bar. Out of the dark appears Bruno, who wants to warn Ted off by delivering a methodical beat-down.

You could give us a litany of all the dreadful blows Bruno deals out, but that’s not really going to move us. You have to expend so many words on describing actions that we likely know from many other books. Instead, bring the reader in fully by describing one source of excruciating pain. That dominates Ted’s thoughts above all other blows.

Maybe a shot to Ted’s stomach is so painful that he feels like the end of one of his ribs has been pulled out of its capsule. It feels like it is sticking right through his skin. Linger on that. What damage could the end of a bone do to Ted’s body in that region? Maybe he briefly recalls a childhood injury playing football, only this pain is much more agonizing. That gives the reader a reference point by which to gauge how much pain Ted is experiencing. The other punches can be described in passing, but remember, most people experience amnesia during an assault, so past a certain point those blows aren’t registering anyway.

This technique can be expanded beyond physical description. Let’s take the example of a conversation. While two women are exchanging gossip, your lead character, Madeline, can be struck by one thing her friend says. Sally is getting a divorce? As the conversation keeps running—because the friend has the dirt on absolutely everyone—Madeline is stuck on that one revelation. Maybe she just talked to Sally last week, and Sally didn’t say a thing to her about any trouble with Frank. Madeline might recall a picnic in which Sally was so happy with Frank, and the reason Madeline remembers is because that night she had unexpectedly great sex with her own husband. You can take advantage of the fact that Madeline doesn’t care about most of the people being discussed; the names pass in a blur. But you zero in on Sally because that divorce is going to impact Madeline later in the book. By focusing on the one, you can find a way to burrow inside your character.

Exercise: Review a scene that features a lot of information and/or action. What items have the most bearing on the novel as a whole? You can single that out with an eye for setting up events in the story’s future. You can also make up related stories that influence the character’s past. Out of the many emerges the one point you really want to make.

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