Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Telling Detail

When I started out as a reporter on a local newspaper, I was asked to cover town council meetings. Before I left the office for my first assignment, my editor took me aside and gave me few words of advice.

“I’m not interested in the color of the walls,” she said, a warning tone in her voice. “I don’t want to know if the wall’s yellow or blue. Just give me the facts.”

Her warning has stayed with me for years, and I was reminded of it—and the wrong-headedness of it when it comes to writing fiction—when I picked up Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence the other day.

Here’s what I found in the first chapter: 
No expense had been spared on the setting, which was acknowledged to be very beautiful even by people who shared his acquaintance with the Opera houses of Paris and Vienna. The foreground, to the footlights, was covered with emerald green cloth. In the middle distance symmetrical mounds of wooly green moss bounded by croquet hoops formed the base of shrubs shaped like orange-trees but studded with large pink and red roses. Gigantic pansies, considerably larger than the roses, and closely resembling the floral pen wipers made by female parishioners for fashionable clergymen, sprang from the moss beneath the rose-trees; and here and there a daisy grafted on a rose-branch flowered with a luxuriance prophetic of Mr. Luther Burbanks far-off prodigies. 
Imagine what my editor might have said to Edith Wharton if she had brought back this description to the newsroom from a visit to New York’s Academy of Music, the setting of the first chapter, where Newland Archer, one of the story’s main characters, makes his entrance.

It’s easy to understand, of course, why my editor might have worried about my reporting skills. A novice, I’d found the job straight out of college, where I’d taken as many literature classes as I could fit into my schedule. I’d never attended a town council meeting before, didn’t have a clue what to look for, and very well might have come back to the office with a description of the walls.

So, it was probably excellent advice to give a young reporter setting out on his first assignment. A newspaper story isn’t about the color of the walls, afterall, unless it’s a story about painting or architecture or interior design.

But the color of the walls may be the telling detail that you need to persuade your reader of the wealth or poverty of a particular character, or a certain character’s taste or mood or disposition. A yellow wall might very well convey a character's sunny personality, a family's optimistic view of the world, a narrator's perspective leaning toward light and hope rather than darkness and despair.

Here, for example, is another brief excerpt—imagine the look on my editor’s face if I’d brought back this description—from Chapter Three: 
Then the house had been boldly planned with a ball-room, so that, instead of squeezing through a narrow passage to get to it (as at the Chiverses’), one marched solemnly down a vista of enfiladed drawing-rooms (the sea-green, the crimson and the bouton d’or), seeing from afar the many-candled lusters reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that the depths of a conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo. 
The next time that you're reading a book, whether it’s a classic or a contemporary novel, notice the details that the author includes and decide whether these details are extraneous (as my news editor felt about walls) or integral to the story.

Take another look at Wharton’s paragraphs above. They may appear a bit overwritten, but are they? What meaning might Wharton have tried to convey to her readers in the selection of such words, the detailed descriptions of such settings?

No comments: