Monday, October 12, 2009

Choose Meaningful Details

“Be selective in details in order to create interest.” -- Philip Martin in “Power Your Story With a Sense of Place” [The Writer, November 2009]
I was asked to present a workshop on flash fiction and said I’d give it some thought. This topic came to mind as it pertains to describing the location of the story. A novelist has a tremendous advantage when it comes to details. As long as there’s not so much descriptive material in a paragraph (or chapter) that the reader becomes bored, the writer is able to go into quite a bit of detail. In fact, a well-written description of a setting can mesmerize a reader and create the overall mood for the tale. In a short-short story this isn’t the case. When writing a 500 to 750 word story, an author can’t waste words. He has to let the reader fill in many of the details. For example, one of my stories begins:
Joise limped along the sidewalk, pushing her belongings in a rusted shopping cart. Wary eyes swept the adjacent park until she spotted the donut bag and to-go coffee cup perched on the rotting bench.
The reader knows this takes place in a rundown (because of the rotting bench) park next to a sidewalk. Close your eyes and picture the setting. Later, Josie spots a young mother pushing a stroller on the opposite side of the lake. Still later, a young man jogs past the woman. How does this added information change your perception of the park?

I mentioned nothing about grass, or trees, or buildings. It’s left to the reader to fill in the blanks. As a fun exercise, write a paragraph describing how you envision this place based on what I’ve told you and post it in the comments. I bet there are as many variations as there are responses.

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