Sunday, February 3, 2013

The devil’s in the detail

This particular idiom is a favourite of mine. How often do we get tripped up by not attending to the details of a situation? (What?! I had to check in forty-five minutes before the flight!) Not reading the fine print? (What?! I’m not covered for flood damage?) Not reading the instructions? (Why is there five screws left?) Ploughing through the steps of a recipe without paying enough attention to those important fine details? (What?! It said a teaspoon of chili not a tablespoon?)

As an editor, I am most certainly a details person. But it is in writing, that details give me the most delight and, at times, cause me the most dilemmas. The addition of details can make or break your writing and it can be a deliciously devilish thing to get right.

It comes down to the old Goldilocks scenario.

Too many details and your writing becomes wordy and dull, slow paced and bogged down, allowing no room for your readers to use their own imaginations.
Too few details and your readers will find it difficult to form pictures in their minds. And your writing becomes flat, uninspiring and quite possibly confusing.

But if you provide just the right amount of details, your writing will sing; it will be vivid and rich – without slowing the pace of the story.

But having the right level of detail is only half the problem. The details you choose must be just right as well – they need to be precise, convincing, evocative, authentic, sensory, specific, arresting, unusual. They should never be merely embellishments. They need to work hard for your plot, or setting, or themes, or character.

In my own writing, I tend to start quite expansive and then whittle down my descriptions and scenes until I feel I have just the right balance, keeping only what I feel are the most arresting, evocative or necessary details. This of course is time-consuming, but it works for me and, as I whittle away, the process becomes like solving a puzzle. By way of example, the first drafts of the prologue in Portraits of Celina ran at around 1000 words. The prologue that made it into the final draft is a mere 250 words – yet it still says everything it needs to say and, while it hasn’t been tested on the general public yet, I think it is vivid and powerful. (She says, hopefully!)

To finish up, I found an interesting definition of “the devil is in the detail” in that most reliable of sources Wikipedia.

“The idiom ‘the devil is in the detail’ refers to a catch or mysterious element hidden in the details.”

In the context of Portraits of Celina, this particular definition brought a sly grin to my face. There is certainly a catch / twist hidden in the details of this story. Quite a dark one, actually. And yes, my friends, that is a teaser ...

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