Recently, for a Fiction class, I read the short story “La Vita Nuova,” by Allegra Goodman. This quaint story of a woman’s struggle after her fiance unexpectedly ends their relationship is childlike in the way it is structured, which makes for a comical, speedy, and enjoyable read. Goodman writes from a third-person perspective about Amanda, an art teacher in her late twenties who, after this unfortunate event, ponders what direction she should go in, and childishly dismisses the attempts of her friends and family to help her move on in a way that I felt was very relatable. Of course, friends and family want the best for us, but oftentimes we, when placed in Amanda’s shoes, would prefer to be left alone, would almost prefer to mope and feel sorry for ourselves. I know I often just feel like being morose and pouty despite other people’s attempts to help me with my senior thesis. Just kidding! (Maybe.)
Reading is a hobby of mine, and I often wish I had more time to read, away from work and school, because I really just love reading other people’s ideas, especially in creative writing. When it comes to literature and creative writing, whether it’s poetry, fiction, personal narratives or otherwise, I always feel that it is the details that matter the most, and I love reading a poem or a short story and seeing what details the author can make note of and incorporate into their work. Oftentimes they offer new perspectives or ideas on something I thought I had decided was right or wrong a while ago, or bring new light onto some issues that I have misconceptions about because they don’t necessarily apply to me. Details, I feel, truly make a story. It’s not enough that a young woman falls in love with a man that doesn’t love her back, that a boy’s dog got hit by a car, or that a student is late to class, because those are all pretty well known cliches that have been used time and time again. When the young woman takes her wedding dress into her Kindergarten class and has her students decorate it with feathers and beads and allows them to smear paint on it, that is an example, in my opinion, of a detail that makes the story especially memorable, as they are in “La Vita Nuova.”
As an aspiring novelist/professor of creative writing, I often find myself giving that piece of advice to many of the students I tutor at the Writing Center on my campus. Students often ask me what makes writing “good,” or whether or not their writing is “good,” which to me is a question I can’t really ever fully answer, but I can say that details really make your writing writing. Details can be tiny. Details can be so insignificant you can hardly believe they’re important, but then because of them, your story is made, tension is created, or a major event happens because of the tiniest detail. How many times have we as audience members screamed at our books, computer or T.V. screens, “If he hadn’t done that one little thing, none of this would’ve happened!” You see? Details. It can often be very effective, as Heinrich Böil demonstrates in his flash fiction piece, “The Cage,” to focus on a detail that seems unimportant or strange to focus on, given the surrounding horror. This can make for a really original twist, as the audience slowly figures out what the piece is actually trying to get at. When writers try to write about a hugely traumatic or tragic issue, it often backfires or sounds cliche, but I have found that if a writer can focus on one tiny detail while hinting at something otherworldly or horrible, it can have a much more meaningful or jolting impact on an audience.
Or you could write a disturbing detail in a similar way that Carolyn Forché writes in her dramatic monologue, “The Colonel.” One day, while listening to my poetry professor read this poem aloud to me for the first time, I got chills when I heard her say the line, “They were like dried peach halves.” For those of you who don’t know the context of this line, I highly recommend looking into it and taking a moment to marvel at this appalling simile. My professor, after reading that line to the class, admitted that for months, she could not forget it, and found herself thinking about it at odd moments: while driving to work, waiting in line for lunch, or even while falling asleep. It was that potent of a detail to her, although each reader has different opinions and perspectives on what personally sticks with them in regards to details.
Details can also add description, in the same way that this one line does, and adds a rather disturbing visual to the mix as well. If you’ve ever been reading a piece of writing and you come across one sentence that you simply can’t get out of your head, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
So, whether you’re writing for fun, for work, for school, or to get published, always keep in mind that details are one of the essential ingredients to telling any story. Thanks, and happy writing!