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?