My bride’s the best reader I have ever met and she skips details in novels and nonfiction. Often. And she skips my details often. It’s bothersome to me: I spend a year or three working on a book and here she is, skimming. This perennial problem plagues writers and history teachers and lecturers alike and it’s a problem you can find hiding in any break room. Eyes glaze over, people check out, they lean back in their chair rather than lean in and eventually you lose them entirely. They go back to work or lunch. We have a couple of family members like this: they’ll get caught up bickering with one another over tiny details in the story, bickering over the minutia of a street name or the precise number of inches of the length of a given largemouth bass and then, once everyone has checked out, they’ll catch themselves and say, “Well that doesn’t matter, the point is…”
Well yeah. We only tuned in to find out what the point is in the first place. WHAT’S THE POINT?
Any time — any time — you favor the details over the large, sweeping intuitive point of your work, your readers check out. Historical writers and teachers suffer from this often, but so does any writer who depends on history — especially the sci-fi and epic fantasy crowd. Let’s be frank: your readers don’t care about the size of a musket ball. They don’t care about the shape of a spell coming out the barrel of a wand. They don’t care about the tensile strength of a bowsprit, the thread count of a toga, the body count at Gettysburg, or the precise shade of plumage on a now-extinct bird. They don’t care.
And you know what?
You don’t care either.
You think you do, but you don’t. Not really. What you care about is the reason that musket ball was the shot heard round the world. You care about the shape of that spell coming out of the barrel of that wand which is a brother to the wand it’s dueling. You care about the tensile strength of a bowsprit only because your protagonist has walked out onto it in what Sting called “the teeth of the tempest.” You care about the thread count of the toga only when it belongs to the empress and someone snags its hemline. And you don’t give a rip about the plumage on the bird unless you’re trying to get inside the mind of the bird or if the bird belongs to your protagonist.
You care, in short, because you feel the intimate connection. This is why we say, “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” If it applies to anything, it applies to historical artifacts. You know what counts as a historical artifact? Everything. Because everything occupies time, and history is the narrative we tell ourselves about living our lives inside time. We don’t care about the color purple except in The Color Purple. As character says: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it,” we connect with Celie’s apathy and ambivalence and suddenly we too care about the color purple: both from our connection with Celie and from our own connection with God. Celie wants to be silent and invisible because of past abuse, but by noticing silent and invisible things, she realizes that she too is seen and heard and known.
How do you employ this as a writer, speaker, or teacher of history?
It’s simple, actually. Stanislavsky, the great acting instructor, first introduced the throughline as a metaphor for this problem. It’s insufficient, as the actor prepares, for him or her to know what their character is doing or is trying to do in any given unit, scene, or scenario. What matters is how every one of the character’s objectives tie together into one coherent objective, a through line of thought, a spine of desire, the gravitational pull of one grounded goal.
That goal will define your details. Tether it to some misbelief in your character’s (or your society’s) past. Make them chase after it with reckless abandon and realize, time and again, how difficult it really is to achieve that goal. And then, when you go to describe the world around them — the world you yourself care so much about — it will matter to your reader and audience. If it doesn’t matter, then you need to change the goal into something you care about as well.
A good way to practice this is through self-examination. The following is a modified writing prompt from Mary Robinette Kowal. Take thirty minutes and describe the room around you. Describe everything you can. As you describe, start to connect your inner goal to the things you see. Keep going. Don’t stop for thirty minutes. Forty-five if you can do it, or even an hour, always trying to speak to some human aspect in each detail. At the end of everything, you’ll find unique pieces to the room. As I said in an earlier essay in Author in Progress, I once spent thirty minutes on this exercise and found a splatter of blood in the shape of a cheekbone. Seeing as how I had been physically threatened recently, it connected with visceral intensity. I deleted everything above that line and started a new story from that cheekbone-shaped splatter. The detail mattered because it mattered to me and it set the room apart. The moment I made it matter to the character’s past trauma and therefore his present goal, the story came alive.
After practicing this a few times, you’ll get to where you can (1) identify the details that set any given space or time apart, (2) connect to those details in a way that matters to the story you’re trying to tell, (3) build up to that detail so that it caps off a paragraph, and (4) do so in a way that compounds the try/fail cycles connected to the progress your character makes along the path to this goal:
- In pursuit of the cavalry general who killed his children, Benjamin Martin begins noticing — and targeting — generals in the British army.
- In pursuit of The Chandrian who killed his parents, Kvothe notices blue flames — an indicator of their presence.
- In pursuit of elocution and therefore respect as a young son and new leader in an empire of manners, King George VI notices how cusswords give him momentum.
- In pursuit of publication as a woman, Jo from Little Women notices how many more titles written by men are published.
The list goes on, but the gist is this: if it don’t matter to your character’s trauma, then it don’t matter to the folk reading your stuff.
Therefore if you really, really care about a detail in history, first make a character for whom such a detail would matter.
And then we’ll listen to your lecture, heed your lesson, and read your written work.
Until The End,
Lancelot Schaubert tears the veil between the fantastic and the common in his fiction, tramsmedia, nonfiction, and prose. He's preparing to release a book of writing articles he has sold to places like Writer's Digest and The Poet's Market — he'll give anyone a free copy that signs up today through this link: http://bit.ly/freewritingarticles
He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and attack spaniel, suffers from a serious addiction to soups of all kinds, and enjoys playing obscure board games, composing songs, improvisation, and swordplay (he's trained for broadsword and rapier).