The Details Matter

August 9th, 2004 · 3 Comments
by Booksquare

We have never read James Patterson. He’s probably fine with this, and so are we. Writers write how they write, and, best as we can tell, there is no secret formula. And craft? Well, it has long been our belief that it’s something writers notice but remains largely invisible to readers. Stop! We know. Allow us to define readers as those who read with a less critical eye. What we mean is that well-crafted fiction flows and absorbs the reader — poorly crafted fiction doesn’t.

But maybe we’ve been wrong. Or brainwashed. Perhaps craft is overrated. Perhaps those things we work so hard to master don’t really matter. There is evidence of that.

Then we think back to a revision workshop we recently took. Author Kristin Hannah talked about the importance of setting and details as you revise your work — understanding why you chose a particular time and place enhances a scene’s message. Even if the reader doesn’t consciously realize, “Oh, garden. Rebirth. I get it,” the message lingers subconsciously. It is those layers that make the experience richer for the reader and writer.

The day before we heard Hannah, we’d finished a book that had us ranting and raving, all because of a single missing detail (actually, there were several missing details, but we didn’t want to be considered insane and focused on just one). It was about beer. A character looked into her refrigerator and saw some of the “premium beer” another character loved. We live with a beer drinker, many of our best friends are beer drinkers, we like really good beer. We have no idea what is meant by “premium.” Beer drinkers, especially those who consider themselves connisseurs, are very specific, and if you, the character in question, purchased the beer you’re noticing, there’s a pretty good chance you read the label. It has a name. You don’t drink (or buy) premium beer. You drink Anchor Steam. You drink Sierra Nevada. You drink Coors. You drink Michelob. You don’t sit down and say, “I’ll have a premium beer.” You say, “What do you have on tap?”

The idea of what constitutes a premium beer changes over time. There was a time when Miller was our idea of the good stuff. That was before we fell in love with Guinness. And then we held a lengthy flirtation with Asahi, especially after our stay in Tokyo. A person who drinks Coors is very different from a person who drinks Dos Equis. The choice, the detail, builds the character. The character who bought and served premium beer struck us as false, especially since the author had spent so much time lovingly detailing every expensive shoe brand in a particular store. It was like she grew lazy and shortchanged the reader. We stopped believing at that point.

So it bothers us that Patterson dispenses with the details (yes, this is where we remember we’re not writing about beer). It is the concreteness of detail that makes a book linger in the mind — the lack of detail leads the book to be forgotten much like most pop music. It catches your attention for the moment, but you don’t think about it after the last note fades away.

File Under: Square Pegs · Tools and Craft

3 responses so far ↓

  • steve // Aug 9, 2004 at 4:35 pm

    I agree that “premium” is too vague, but I don’t think the only solution is naming a specific brand. Beer can be described in such a way as to make a clear point — where it’s imported from, how much it costs compared to other beers, etc. — without actually labeling it. Frederick Busch did this well in ‘Girls,’ with a scene that highlights class difference by using a sixpack of beer without ever naming a brand.

    Which raises the whole problem of branding in fiction, and at what point the problem of not enough detail becomes the problem of too much and veers toward distraction. Sometimes using a particular product seems an authorial cop-out, like relying on mention of a pop song in a scene to set a mood the author perhaps could have conjured through craft. (Oh, look, I’ve somehow swerved back to your topic!)

  • David Thayer // Aug 10, 2004 at 8:44 am

    The exception to this rule is Budweiser. Before a character crushes the can against his forehead it may be important to signal the reader that it’s only a Bud.

  • booksquare // Aug 10, 2004 at 1:54 pm

    True, you don’t have to give me a name, but give me more than premium. In this book, however, there were brand names on top of brand names. I can now identify types of shoes I never knew existed. There’s craft and there’s shorthand. In this scene, shorthand would have worked just fine. In another? Well, I’m pretty sure I can evoke Guinness without saying Guinness.

    As for crushing cans against the forehead? Well, yeah, you don’t want anyone to think your character is letting perfectly good beer go to waste…