Tuesday, May 26, 2009

God--and Emotion in Your Writing--Is in the Details

Striving to get more voice, more emotion in your writing? One of my favorite nonfiction writers, Rick Bass, shares an important clue on how to do this. It goes back to the old saying, God is in the details.

"All of the smallest elements," Bass writes, "the direction of a breeze one day, a single sentence that a friend might speak to you, a raven flying across the meadow and circling back again--lay claim to you, eventually, with a cumulative power."
We're all after creating that kind of cumulative power in our writing. It's like the moment of seeing a completely developed perennial garden in full bloom--the sight of all those flowers, shapes, and scents in the summer light can take your breath. How do we get this in our writing--this synergy, this emotional effect? I think the clue is in the details, as Rick Bass suggests.

How Much Detail Is Needed?
In my writing classes, we labor over this: how to bring in the small details, not get bored with our own writing in the process, add just enough and not too much.

Most writers add too little. I think it might be born from our sped-up lives. We move so fast, it's literally hard to stop and smell the roses. But we need to, in our writing, because the reader will want this emotional punch, this moment of truth, to come through. And if the writer doesn't experience it, the reader won't either.

I'm not talking about painstaking details. One writer thought I meant this when I talked about putting in more details: "I put my hand on the doorknob, turned it slowly, pulled the door toward me, stepped over the threshold." No, it's fine just to write, "I walked into the room." But whenever you want emotional punch, effect, a moment of truth, you need to linger in detail.

Externally Felt Senses--Keys to Effective Detail in Writing
My tried-and-true way: adding senses. I can almost hear my writing classes groan. That again? Well, yes. It's vital. How many senses are used in the paragraph above, from Rick Bass? I count three. Touch (the breeze), sound (the friend's voice), and sight (the raven). It brings home the emotion, doesn't it?

This week's exercise: Pick a random page of your writing-in-progress. Make sure it's random, not your best or worst page. Count the number of times you use the senses on that page. Where do you use them--when there's need for emotional impact? When you want a message to come across? Then brainstorm a list of sense details you could add to that page.

I realize, for some of you, this will be boring, feel like too much detail. Usually if you have that reaction, you need more of it. It's been way too long since you slowed down enough to even notice the roses, much less smell them.
Make sense? Agree or disagree? I'd love to hear your thoughts and your experiences if you try this exercise.