Friday, December 28, 2007

Details And Destruction . . .

by Sean Chercover

Note: The idea for this post was sparked by reading the blogs of J.D. Rhoades and David Terrenoire. They both write great books and great blogs, so check ‘em out.

David and J.D. both posted the following video, which got me thinking…

Sure, you can intellectualize about guns and bullets and their influence on human history; you can argue about the power of a gun to protect and defend the innocent and procure food, or you can argue about the power of a gun to murder and terrorize and accidentally kill children whose parents didn’t secure said gun responsibly.

But what I thought, while watching bullets rip through inanimate objects in extreme slow motion, was: How utterly beautiful.

Or, as David said on his blog, “Stuff blows up real good.” It sure does. (And, as an aside, this video also provides a lesson in the physics of energy transference, and shows that things do NOT fly backward through the air when shot.)

But let’s turn away from bullets. Here’s ultra slow motion video of the popping of a kernel of popcorn:

Beautiful, isn’t it?

And watch, how the water in a balloon retains the balloon’s shape after the balloon is popped, and then slowly succumbs to gravity:

Or how a dropped water balloon flattens out before exploding:

Okay, so what the hell does any of this have to do with writing?

For me, watching these videos is a reminder of the power of showing details that normally fly by unnoticed. Like that scene in Taxi Driver when Travis Bickle becomes mesmerized by the fizzing Alka Seltzer in a glass of water, and disconnected from the people around him in the diner.

By zeroing-in on an unexpected detail, we slow down time, just like a high-speed camera, and we gain insight into the mind of the character doing the observing.

Of course, a little of this goes a long way. When I wrote BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD, I sent the manuscript to a few early readers, and one of them wrote back the following email:

“Great book. Too much furniture.”

Awesome note. I mean, I like furniture as much as the next guy, but he was right. In my desire to display Ray Dudgeon’s observational skills, I’d gone way too far.

So I went through and cut out a lot of the furniture. If it said something important about the character who lived there, or about Ray’s emotional reaction to the environment, then it stayed. Otherwise, it went. Which meant, most of it went.

As the master, Elmore Leonard, so famously advised: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

And the really cool thing is, once the meaningless details are gone, the important details jump up and sing, creating the emotional impact of Travis Bickle’s Alka Seltzer dissonance moment.

It’s a fun challenge, deciding when to be brief and breezy, and when to slow down time and zero-in on that emotionally resonant detail that normally goes unnoticed.

The aforementioned J.D. Rhoades does this extremely well, stopping time in the middle of a scene of high action and focusing on the telling detail.

What authors do you admire in their judicious use of detail? Got any favorite moments?


JD Rhoades said...

Wow. Thank you, Sean.

And Happy Birthday (again)!

Libby said...

I'll take a page from the film world... Orson Welles Citizen Kane... the Godfather (the first one.. maybe part 2 as well).. LA Confidential... they all had the kind of details that made me savor every second of screen time...

Yes... happy bday, Sean!

L.A. Powell said...

Outstanding post, Sean. Very interesting and true in my belief of how to use details. I couldn’t agree with you more on the authors you’ve mentioned here in your blog. All great at capturing the moment.

Lisa Powell

guyot said...

Rhoades' latest is his best.

I think James Lee Burke doesn't get enough credit for this. People always lump him into the "purple flowery clouds" thing, but his writing is at its best when, in the midst of extreme violence or tension, he will bring out the smallest, most (seemingly) insignificant detail, and it will make the entire scene perfect.

Let's see, others, others... Laura Lippman has done this quite well at times. Dennis Lehane and Jeff Parker come to mind.

Maryann Mercer said...

I like William Kent Krueger...his narrative gives you detail without making a big deal out of it. Nothing so descriptive that you lose the story in the trees, but just enough so that the setting becomes a character.
And I'll follow Libby and mention three of my favorites from film:
It's a Wonderful Life (just watch it once without thinking it's a Christmas story...I keep seeing details that I missed before)
And happy birthday, Sean (or is it belated happy birthday?)!
Have a wonderful 2008 everyone!

Bryon Quertermous said...

Michael Connelly is the master of this. One detail still sticks out in my mind where he had Harry talking about the inside pocket of his suit jacket being torn by the wires from his little notebook and how he missed that when he stopped being a cop. Great stuff.

Jude Hardin said...

Right-on about James Lee Burke, Paul.

Happy birthday, Sean, and happy new year!

Rob said...

I think Stephen King is a master at this kind of thing. Some of the details he throws in add such realism to his stories, you're convinced they are true even while a supernatural clown peers out of a storm drain.