Sunday, September 30, 2012

Becoming Mindful of Details

Sometimes I’ll take a book off my shelf and find a passage at random and study the words that the writer decided to place on the page.

It’s a helpful strategy, I think, for becoming more mindful of the power of words and for learning how a writer makes choices to create an image on the page, set up a scene, and evoke an emotional response in his or her reader.

Here’s a passage from Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian, a remarkable book about the Armenian genocide, which was a National Book Award Finalist in 2000: 
When the sun barely touched the tops of the trees, we were led off the road to a flat place by the River Tigris. It was the same river Sisak and Oskina and I had swum in the year before, and now it was congested with thousands of corpses. They were floating faceup, facedown, naked and clothed, the rust-colored water washing over and around them.” (p. 47)
That’s the way the words appear on the page, and the images are clear—so clear and powerful that you can almost smell the corpses in the river—the details drawing you into the scene.

Now let’s imagine how the words might have appeared in an earlier draft, one where the heightened level of specificity hadn’t yet made its way to the page.

Remember, this is not Bagdasarian’s draft; it’s my way of imagining how he might have written an earlier draft: 
When the sun touched the trees, we were led off the road to the river. It was the river that I had swum in the year before. Thousands of corpses were floating in the water.
Do you see the difference and how the specificity of the words in the final draft help to create the image that you see in your imagination?

We can go even further back, if we want, to an even earlier (imaginary) version: 
The sun touched the trees. We were led to the river. Corpses floated in the water.
That’s the basic structure of the paragraph, the spine on which the images and emotions are built and layered.

Sun touches trees.

People, including the narrator, are led to a river.

He sees corpses in the water.

Now try going through the passage sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word, to see how the author built this paragraph, crafting it so beautifully (and tragically) to reveal the chaos and sense of life being ripped apart.

Notice how Bagdasarian draws your attention to the sunlight on the trees to frame the image at the break of day, not just sunlight on trees but more precisely light that “barely touched the tops of the trees.”

You can see how he was “led off the road” not just to the river itself but to a “flat place by the River Tigris.” Not just any place. A flat place. And not just any river. The Tigris River.

And you can begin to understand how he creates a sense of time’s passage, as well as a sense of all that’s been lost since the year before when he swam in the river with his friends, by contrasting the memory of what was with the grief-stricken sight of what is there now.

And, last and perhaps most tragically, you can see the corpses floating in the water, and, more urgently, you can see the “rust-colored water washing over and around them.” Not just over them, but over and around them.

If you expect your readers to trust you, to follow you into the imaginary world that you create for them, it’s essential that you become mindful of the details that will draw them into the your story.

For more information on becoming mindful of the details, visit:

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