Sunday, July 12, 2015

Detail and Shadow

Most writers relish details the way they cherish words: how can you possibly amass enough? Yet details are like chocolate. Continue after you should quit, and the result is queasiness. Or worse.

19th century writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich said, “I like to have a thing suggested rather than told in full. When every detail is given, the mind rests satisfied, and the imagination loses the desire to use its own wings.”

Here in the 21st century “wings” are generally restricted to literal flight. The language has changed, but not its truth: the smallest possible number of precise details let readers engineer their own flights.

The right detail is worth ten or twelve almost-right ones. This isn’t just a matter of leaving readers enough space; it also involves perception.

The beginnings and ends of shadow lie between the light and darkness and may be infinitely diminished and infinitely increased. Shadow is the means by which bodies display their form. The forms of bodies could not be understood in detail but for shadow. ― Leonardo da Vinci

What underlies this observation? The significance of dimness, of ambiguity, of the part you have to squint to bring into focus—and it might still remain indistinct anyway.

The history of photography, of how we make imagery permanent, has much to offer novelists. Picture yourself in a darkroom, dipping the print-to-be in its bath, waiting for an image to emerge, waiting to see what you captured.  Even though we can now see what we capture as fast as our fingers can move, patience remains the fiction writer’s ally. Yes, it’s great to have 50 chances to get the shot. But you have let all of them go except the one that offers both shadow and light, that guides readers without blocking the view. Present all your attempts, and you’ve erased every shadow.

Keep” taking shots” until you achieve the picture that gives readers of what they sought in the first place: the privilege of discovering where the shadows begin. Here’s an example:

Helen made all well-formed sentences. But they were hollow and stuffed―linguistic training bras. She sorted nouns from verbs, but, disembodied, she did not know the difference between thing and process, except as they functioned in clauses. Her predications were all shotgun weddings. Her ideas were as decorative as half-timber beams that bore no building load. ― Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2

Powers gives us lots of metaphors, each providing a clue to what’s missing. The details make this happen: “training bra,” “noun” or “verb,” impetuous marriage, and “beams” that offer no support.  In about fifty words, readers discover something about Helen, the person describing her, and the discomfort of non-communication. He loves metaphors—and many of us love him for that! Because the metaphors are never definitive—only suggestive. Each reader can interpret a little differently. Grant your own readers that opportunity.

Tip: Leave room for the shadows.

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