Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Writing and the Telling Detail

A comment from Jim Murdoch on the last post got me to thinking about the telling detail. What is a telling detail? One thing that pulls the reader into the experience of the story, one thing that creates the emotional connections to the writing.

An example is in Stephen King's Pet Semetary where a father, ever so gently, wipes the grave mold from his dead child's cheek. Intense. Unforgettable. Does a reader stop reading at this point? No way.

The grave mold growing on the child's cheek is a telling detail. It can be any specific detail. It can be a sight, sound, touch, taste or smell. It can be a specific thought or action. One thing that has tremendous meaning, almost a shorthand connection.


Jim Murdoch said...

If we're going to use horror writers as an example, then the opening of The Rats by James Herbert is a master class in how to keep readers turning pages. I forget the specifics (and I don't have a copy to refer to) but he starts by painting a portrait, an intimate portrait of someone. He makes this person real, someone we've invested time in, not simply a victim. He commits about four pages to this individual. And then he kills him off. The loss is real. He then does the same only with a little less detail this time. And kills them off. Then again, will even less detail. And again. And again. Finally, all we have are a few lines to get to know the victim and they're gone. Brilliant.

Conda Douglas said...

That excellent writing by James Herbert that you cite above, Jim, are why his books terrify me. Which is exactly what they are supposed to do, and do so well that I must be in the "right place" to read them!