Friday, 5 November 2010

Detail and description

I have enormous respect for Elmore Leonard and I’m forever quoting his 10 ‘rules’ for writers. They really do make sense, especially his exhortation to ‘leave out the part that readers tend to skip’ and get rid of anything that ‘sounds like writing’. But, while I agree in principle with rules 8 ‘Avoid detailed descriptions of characters’ and 9 ‘Don’t go into great detail describing places and things’, I think detail, even in descriptions, is a useful writer’s tool.

Whenever I give talks or workshops on writing short stories, I stress how great an impact you can create with details, and the thing I quote isn’t a story but a song. It’s Ode to Billy-Joe – the Bobby Gentry hit from what feels like 2 centuries ago. I’m sure you know it but, just in case there are some who don’t, it tells the story of a small, domestic tragedy (Billy-Joe McAllister has jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge). But the thing that gives it its impact is the ordinariness of the context in which it’s happened and in which the story’s being told:
Poppa said to Momma as he passed around the black-eyed peas,
‘Billy-Joe never had a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits please’.
It’s the apparently trivial details of the ‘black-eyed peas’ and the ‘pass the biscuits’ that make the suicide so poignant. They make it real. Stendhal, who figures quite often in things I say about writing and novels, called them ‘petits faits vrais’ (little true facts) and said they give authenticity to a story.

The reason I’m writing about this now is that the whole business of visuals in text, which Linda triggered a couple of postings ago, seems to have so many different facets. And I’m sure Mr Leonard would agree that there are plenty of exceptions which disprove his ‘rules’. His first, for example, is ‘Never open a book with weather’. But the first words of Bleak House are ‘Implacable November weather’. Then, after brief mentions of muddy streets and smoke, comes the wonderful (and often-quoted) passage about fog:

‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck.’

That’s much more than weather. The first time I read (or heard) it was at school, when football (and perhaps girls, but certainly not literature) was all I cared about, but it’s stayed with me – its rhythms, its sinister threats, its oppressiveness – and all deriving from its visual impact. Detailed descriptions for their own sake get in the way. They may be beautiful sunsets, wonderful vistas across the glens, tumbling seas or simply navy-blue serge trousers and waistcoats, but if they hold up the pace or keep the people out of the picture, they’re intrusions.

I said in the first posting about this that I thought I saw visuals through the prism of the effect they have on the characters, but of course, it’s obvious that they’re even more functional than that. They create character, too. So, having quoted Elmore Leonard, Bobbie Gentry, Stendhal and Dickens, my last quote will be from another literary great – me. (That’s an example of British humour, by the way.) In the next of my police procedural series, due for publication next year, I introduce two of the main characters as they sit in a meeting.

Christie and Leith contrasted in every way. Christie was nearly fifty but dressed like someone in his early thirties. His skin was sun-bed orange and his blonde hair was long enough to feature in shampoo adverts. Unfortunately, there was very little of it. His dark brown Ben Sherman shirt and green velvet waistcoat suggested that his ideas on fashion had frozen in the eighties. For Leith, on the other hand, fashion was a foreign country. He wore a limp tweed jacket over a green shirt with a filthy collar. His tie had been worn through too many meals involving juices, his face was red and shiny and he had a habit of scratching his scalp with a pencil.

It’s obviously not an objective description but my hope is that, by using their clothes and appearance, I can predispose the reader to have a particular attitude to each of them. Descriptions and details aren’t passive things. They contribute. But, as Mr Leonard says, don’t overdo them, and make sure they’re there for a reason.


  1. Brilliant analysis, as usual. The 'fog' passage sends chills up my spine every time I read it.

    I need to 'see' my characters. How boring if you only said they 'contrasted in every way.' Oh yes, that would free up flights of fancy, I could fill in the blanks, then 20 or 50 pages later find out I was terribly wrong.

    I like to think about: how do I describe characters 'different in every way' if it's just a verbal interchange, a chat with a friend - what words would I use?

    Then, for a screenplay, what shorthand description would give the director guidance?

    And of course, a novel or short story would have totally different requirements.

    That would be a lovely exercise for a creative writing class, wouldn't it?

  2. Let me know when you're giving that class, Diane. Maybe Donnie's shed will be available.

    As for 'seeing' my characters, I think it's more that I need to hear them. Once they start speaking, they begin to let me know who they are.

  3. Some very neat examples. Always seems easier to understand the concept that way. And I love the touch of British humor:)

  4. The man talks sense. So do you, Bill. There are times when i disagree however. I do like a nice piece of writing now and again. What would James lee Burke novels be like without the lyrical descriptions? They'd be somehow less in my view. But then he does it so well, you don't skip over it.

  5. Thanks Sheila. I agree - all the explanations in the world can't beat a good example. (And if you liked the 'touch of' British humour, you can find bucketloads of it at Michael's blog - May Contain Nuts.

    I also agree with you Michael. But I think Leonard was pointing at those writers (and we all know some) who get into riffs which tend to say 'Look at how well I can write, savour the mellifluous cadences of my linguistic extemporising, etc., etc.' All of which provokes the response 'Shut yer gob. Tell me the story.' Of course, we'll soon all be able to say whether you fall into that category when your novel appears. Make sure you drop by when it does and tell us all where we can get it.

  6. Sure will, Bill and I'll even allow you to post a wonderfully positive review that compares me to all the modern crime writing greats.

  7. Send me the cheque and I'll do it right now.

  8. Great post, Bill. I admire Elmore Leonard's work and agree with his ten rules of writing, with the exception of "Never open the book with weather." I'm afraid that I break that rule with every book. It's either fog, rain or snow in every novel with a flash flood thrown in for good measure in my lastest. For me, weather serves as a great alternative antagonist.

  9. Bill, the cheque is in the post. A statement which, quite frankly ranks up there in the believability stakes with, trust me I'm a doctor and Bill, I love you.

  10. Weather as antagonist - great line, Jean.

    Michael, I know it is and I know you do.

  11. As I'm sure every other writer has, I've read numerous how-to books about writing. And darn near every rule in each of those how-tos has been broken. I guess the important thing about breaking rules is to do so AFTER we've collected a bunch of raving fans and have hit the bestseller list.

  12. Not sure I agree with your last point Linda. I think maybe it's by breaking the rules that one establishes one's individuality amongst the creative writing clones. What I would say, though, is that it's important that you know what the rules are and why they're there before you break them - that way you can do so with deliberate intent. Some rule-breakers don't even know there are any rules.

  13. So, can you not have "primitive" writers, in the same way there are primitive artists?

  14. OK Ron, I'm not letting you get away with that. My first impulse was 'yes, of course you can'. And I always encourage people to use their own voice anyway, which means that some may well have no idea of grammatical structures and the rest. But then I started wondering whether it's possible to draw an analogy between the 'rules' of painting and those of literature (in the broadest sense). So until you expand your question (perhaps in the form of a long-overdue guest blog), I'll just ruminate quietly on it all.