the little things

In a recent episode of The Garrett podcast, author Jessica Townsend – who’s book ‘Nevermoor’ is one of the biggest selling debut Australian children’s books on record – provided a great note of advice for aspiring writers, but it wasn’t a big focus.

Here’s what Jessica said:

nevermoorThis is so important – most people get so caught up with the story they want to get out and onto the page, that they neglect the more intricate details which enable users to connect with your characters and scenes.

This, I’d argue, is also one of the key strengths of George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire‘ series – while the setting is clearly fantasy, and there are events and elements which cannot exist in real life, the truly engaging aspects that really draw you in as a reader are based on how people would actually live in that reality.

For example, in most medieval fantasy stories, the princess gets rescued, the nobleman wins out, the kingdom is saved. But if you really consider the reality of such a world, it would truly be brutal. Justice is often based on strength, power can be wrested by combat. If this is how things really were, it wouldn’t be the good guys who would win, it would be the ones who had the fewest morals, who were willing to do whatever it took to exert dominance and control – which is exactly what happens.

That subverts the stereotypical fantasy format (at least in a mainstream sense), but it feels much more real, the responses and reactions that each character has feel more genuine, with each having his or her own motivations and ideas.

That level of detail is what makes a story come alive – the idea of fiction is to re-create the emotion of the scene, the world you’re creating, within the mind and body of the reader. The smells are important, the little elements that stand out, that trigger a response.

A description like:

“It was so dark he couldn’t see a thing.”

Is nowhere near as viscerally effective as:

“The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening. Often he had to get up. No sound but the wind in the trees. He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings.”

Okay, that’s probably cheating – few can do so as well as Cormac McCarthy. But you get the point – you don’t have to go overboard and include every detail, but you do need to understand what’s actually happening, why every character is there. What people would notice if they were within the scene.

You might not think such details are hugely relevant, but if they stood out to you, they’ll likely help set the scene for your reader. Jessica hasn’t highlighted it a major point, but it is crucial, and it will make your writing ‘come alive’, to use an artsy cliche.

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