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Friday, 12 July 2013

Fiction, the Good Lie – No.1 : Specific Details

by Magi Nams

"Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie." Stephen King, On Writing

"Good fiction is made up of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by." Ralph Ellison, Advice to Writers

These two quotes sum up the theme of a writing workshop I and a dozen other writers/hopefuls attended two years ago in Great Village, Nova Scotia. Newfoundland author Michael Crummey led the workshop and told us that "good writers put the real world on paper," that "most fiction is true with added elements," and that writing "good fiction is like telling a good lie that others believe."

Michael asked us to describe the difference between a good lie and a bad lie. We brainstormed and came up with the following criteria for a good lie: conviction, consistency, verifiable and convincing details, no traps (don't overdo it), sincerity, eye contact. And for a bad lie: body language doesn't jive with story, inconsistency, anachronisms, exaggeration, overstatement, too insistent, bragging/drawing attention, vagueness, contradiction, too much detail. Michael stressed that, as when telling a painful truth or a good lie, "good writers don't flinch away from the hard moments." They "maintain eye contact all the way through."

We did two exercises which focused on the concept of readers needing concrete, specific details to buy into an author's story, to enter the world he or she has created, to believe the lie, if you will. For the first exercise, we left our notebooks behind and took a brief walk around the yard of the home where the workshop was held, using our five senses to collect specific, convincing details. Then we went back inside, and Michael gave us five minutes to write a description. Here's what I wrote:

Shoes clunked on wooden steps. Gravel grated and crunched underfoot. Hostas formed mounds of white-edged green heart-shaped leaves next to spirea with faded parasols of flowers, and daylilies still thrusting trumpets of burgundy rust into the air. Wet grass caressed sandaled feet, its dampness cool. Air a moist, warm legacy of the underbelly of periwinkle clouds that towered above the white steep-roofed church. Fallen apples laced with scab exuded the scent of rot. Scarlet runner beans spiraled up kinked poles that together formed tines of a rake puncturing the sky. Three dogs yipped and squabbled, their voices juxtaposed against the background burr of a tractor and swift passage of rushing tires on the highway. Pigweeds and timothy bore heads of seeds among flowering tomato plants lost in an overgrown garden.

I'm the outdoorsy type and enjoy observing the natural world, so I naturally gravitated to the above exercise. However, I found the second descriptive exercise much more difficult. After imagining a character (name, gender, place of birth, age, birthday, place of residence), we had five minutes to write a description of a room in that character's home, again including specific, convincing details intended to convey information about our imagined protagonist. After staring into space for far too much of the allotted time, I produced a few drab, unconvincing sentences.

From those two exercises, I learned that I have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to writing specific, convincing details. I now pay much more attention to the interiors of homes and other buildings, and to people, in order to gather a sensory store of details for future writing projects.

Description just for the sake of description, as in my paragraph, doesn't advance a story. All those specific details must serve a purpose and are most effective when presented via a character's perspective, thus conveying mood, tone, or providing insight into that character's persona or a conflict which must be resolved. Readers crave the human element in fiction, so for our readers to judge our descriptions as 'good lies,' we as writers must intertwine descriptive details with true human emotions so the combination resonates with readers.

Today I reworked my description of the yard to include that essential human element. Here's how it reads now:

Dan's boots clunk on the porch's wooden steps. I step carefully, leaning on him. Gravel grates and crunches under our feet when we cross the driveway. Alongside the garage, hostas form mounds of white-edged, heart-shaped leaves beside faded parasols of spirea flowers and daylilies still thrusting trumpets of burgundy rust into the air. Wet lawn grass caresses my bare toes in sandals, its dampness cool. I limp beside Dan, feeling as though as much has been cut out of me as remains. Fallen apples laced with scab exude the scent of rot. The scarlet runner beans I planted spiral up kinked poles resembling a rake's tines puncturing the sky. Three dogs in the neighbour's yard yip and squabble, their voices juxtaposed against the background burr of a tractor and swift passage of rushing tires on the highway. The air is warm, moist September air, legacy of  the underbelly of periwinkle clouds towering above Great Village's white steep-roofed church. This time is a reprieve, I know. The future holds more cutting. But for now, at last, at last, I'm home.






Magi Nams includes plenty of specific and hopefully convincing details in her contemporary romantic fiction with an outdoors/science twist. Ditto for her nature/travel blog at www.nams.ca/MagiBlog



12 comments:

  1. Lovely, Magi. I never have enough description and always need to go back and add it. Apparently no one can see inside my head. What's in yours is so much prettier. :-)

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    1. Thanks, Paula. That's the challenge, isn't it? To have readers see and feel our imagined scene. I always have to be careful not to get carried away!

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  2. Description is not my strongest trait but I love when an author does it well. How cool is it that you took a writing class from Michael Crummey?

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    1. Anne, the class was definitely cool. Michael really challenged us to push our descriptive limits while not falling into one of the traps of 'the bad lie.' I'm a cleaner writer because of it.

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  3. I am TERRIBLE at description! But what's probably a good thing, is that my fave books don't have a lot of it either ... they usually have a lot of introspection though, and that can also feel like a lie if you really don't know your characters well enough.

    This is a really interesting post ... "good writers put the real world on paper" is going to be a quote that sticks with me for awhile - thanks!!!

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  4. Nikki, glad you find that quote useful. So do I. It's absolutely true that good fiction must breathe reality into the reader's mind. Ah, introspection. I'm far less comfortable with that than I am with description. Know anyone teaching a good workshop on it? :)

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  5. Very interesting post, Magi. I loved the words you chose in both your descriptions and how each paragraph flowed to paint a vivid image in my mind. I also liked how it added that extra emotion to the second one once you introduced Dan. As someone who usually forgets to add the five senses in my first drafts (or even more than one most of the time), I admire writers who can do it so well. :)

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    1. Thanks, Annette. The human element is so important in description. Specific details need to be relevant to characters in order to resonate with us as readers. I really enjoyed reworking my description of the yard to make it part of someone's life. It took on a whole new dimension and suddenly came alive for me. :)

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  6. Loved your post, Magi. Made me stop and think. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks, Bev. The 'specific details' workshop really resonated with me. I try to carry it in my back pocket whenever I'm out and about, so I can gather more fodder for ficition. :)

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  7. Replies
    1. Thanks, Kelly. We'll all be carrying sleuthing notebooks!

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