Friday, June 22, 2012

Writers use details to make stories come alive

During a recent staff meeting, I talked with my writers about showing and not telling, and I blogged an example here. 

What I sometimes find is that writers observe/record details but that's where they stop. They don't ask questions about what it is they've observed. But by asking questions, a writer goes a step further and the answers provide rich detail that help tell the story.
He's an example, let's suppose:

A reporter interviewed a subject on the fringe of society. They met in the person's sparse living area.The reporter could hear his boss (that's me) in his ear, telling him to pay attention to details and jot everything down. So he did. When the reporter returned to the office, he shared what he had found.

1. The person has an old looking TV set with rabbit ears.
2. A ratty pastel quilt covered the couch
3. A hotpot and an electric popcorn maker sat on the floor next to an outlet
4.  A Bible sat on the end table

The reporter was happy. He thought he had done well, and he had. But, I told him, you can do better. Let's look at each one of these details and see what we might possibly find if we ask a question about the observation.

1. Reporter: That TV looks old.
 Man: Yeah. Found it on a curb. Got to it before the garbage guys did.
 Reporter: Mind if I turn it on?
Man: Be my guest.
Reporter: (turns on TV and goes through the channels) You only get Fox?
Man: Yep.But before I got this TV, I spent all my time watching cars go by.
Reporter: So what's your favorite show?
Man: Toss up between "American Idol" and "Glee."
Reporter:  Like singing, huh?
Man: It's the only talent I have. Can't do much else since my hands got so mangled from arthritis.  
Reporter: Why don't you sing something and I'll video you?

Now you see how much more telling information the reporter got from the subject because he went beyond simply noting that the man had an old TV with rabbit ears? The reporter turned on the TV and went through the channels, which led to more questions.

2. The reporter found that the ratty pastel blanket was a Cinderella quilt. When asked where he got it, the man explained that he paid a buck for it at a yard sale down the street.

3. The reporter, when he asked about the hot pot and electric popcorn maker, learned that the man uses them to cook. His last meal? Rice-A-Roni that he made in the electric popcorn maker.  "Works as good as them electric frying pans," he said.

4. The man, when asked about the Bible, proudly showed the reporter his name written in ink on the inside. He got it as a reward when he was 6 for bringing the most people to Vacation Bible School. That's when he lived in his first of ten foster homes. 

See how much richer the writer's story will be because he went beyond sight.

All of this applies to those who write fiction. When you are creating and deciding what details to include, go beyond that first rung. Climb higher to get the best fruit for your story.

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  1. When you observe you see a lot.

  2. Interviews are some of the telling experiences a writer can have. Asking those who, what, why and how questions are vital to a good story.

  3. *most I hate typing on my phone.

  4. Buffy, this is great stuff. I hear that we have a mutual friend (my cousin, Steve Buttry), and I'm so happy that he has directed me to this blog. I've had to work very hard on "show, not tell" in my 100-word blog, and these examples are excellent. I'll be reading though some of your posts over the next few days, and with your permission, I'll add a link to your blog on mine. Nice to "meet" you!