Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Do you write with vivid detail?

by Karen Harrington

“In all the major genres, vivid detail is the life blood.” 
John Gardener, The Art of Fiction

“Specific, concrete, particular details—these are the life of fiction.” 
Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A  Guide to Narrative Craft

“Be specific. Don’t say “fruit.” Tell what kind of fruit—“It is a pomegranate.” Give 
things the dignity of their names…" 
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bone

How to fill in the details of a story?

As I was considering this question, my five-year old was coloring in her Disney coloring book. I am in awe of how specific she is about coloring. How she will match the color of the necklace to the hem of a dress. No one taught her to do this. She just looked in her box of crayons and made her choices. To my word-loving delight, she asked me to read the name of each crayon color. Purple Pizzazz. Red Violet. Midnight Blue. Mango Tango. She was just as excited about the descriptions, too. (I'm the same way. The other day, I bought a nail polish called Back To The Fuschia, largely because the name tickled me pink!)

So it got me to thinking that writing the details of a story has a lot in common with coloring. You begin with the thick black sketch of an idea, and then you look in your box of crayons and begin filling in the image with your own specific idea of what colors should go where.

When I set out to write in vivid detail, two lessons come to mind that I gleaned in my college novel writing class.

1/ WRITE VERTICALLY - As a writer, I'm a sprinter. Most of the time, I can get that black sketch outline on the page with no problem. But to be a writer of details, which I believe is essential to good fiction, I had to learn to be a marathoner. My writing professor chided me for "writing horizontally." He said, "Write vertically. Slow down and write downward, really getting underneath the scene." Good advice. When I stop and linger inside a scene, I understand what it means to stay with a specific image or idea long enough to stretch it out from north to south, instead of being concerned with going so far east to west.  After many years of practice, I think I'm more conscious about writing vertically from the very start.

2/ CHOOSE DETAILS THAT REVEAL - The second lesson I remember about details was when my professor made an example of me in his class.  I'd written a scene about a housewife ironing that read something like, “She did her work in solitude, moving the iron back and forth as if it was her dance partner.”

Nothing brilliant here. But the lesson my prof illustrated was how this sentence made an inanimate object come to life, personified it in a way that suggested this woman might be lonely, how she might be underappreciated. This example has stayed with me to this day. I like noticing how characters, and all people, are constantly revealing themselves with objects and body language like my lonely housewife. Most writers I know collect details in a notebook for this very reason. For example, I recently noted the way a woman I know rubs her thumb across the cool metal of her wedding band. Why? To check if she’s still married? Or, to check if she’s STILL married? Another observation I noted recently was when I saw a happy, bouncy woman run up an hug another woman. From my point of view, the Huggee's arms stayed by her side as she was surprised by the action and wore an expression that suggested she wasn't a hugger, or perhaps, not a fan of the Hugger. Who knows.

So, do naturally write vertically or horizontally?
Do you keep a detail notebook?

I'm the author of JANEOLOGY (2008) and SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY, due out in early 2013 from Little, Brown. Visit me at www.karenharringtonbooks.com


Anonymous said...

I love this post. I had never thought of writing in terms of vertical and horizontal. I guess I'm horizontal the first round through then I go back and add more detail with each revision. I'll try to use your example to get better at it, though.

BTW, I teach kindergarteners on Wednesday nights at church. And I've noticed that the girls color in detail, but the boys will use one or two colors for the whole picture, regardless of how many objects are in the picture. :)

Karen Harrington said...

Hi Linda,

Thanks for your comment. It's interesting to think in terms of horizontal/vertical, isn't it?

That's an interesting observation about girls and boys. One of my friend's daughters just broke up with a boy because he only texted with one emoticon! :)

Susan Cushman said...

Great post, Karen. I love the part about writing to reveal. In her new book, "A Grown Up Kind of Pretty," Joshilyn Jackson uses scads of phrases that blow me away, like, to describe the sound a sick dog was making, she said he made "beeps" that "sounded like a sad monkey imitating a truck backing up." Good stuff, huh?

Karen Harrington said...


Those are great examples. (And I love the word "scad") :)


Lisa Gradess Weinstein said...

Great advice. I've been a writer for years but just started a blog. I saw your post on Melissa Firman's FB page. I'm a Harry Potter fanatic, and one of the reasons is because K Rowling's books are filled with such amazing detail! Stop by and visit my blog sometime, http://lisagradessweinstein.blogspot.com/

Leslie Davis Guccione said...

Wonderful post PLUS a great teaching moment since it requires that fine balance~~ stopping in place/getting mired in the detail vs moving the story forward with a clear image. I'll be sending my students to this post! Thanks.

Karen Harrington said...


Thanks for stopping by. I agree that Rowling's work is detail rich. What a great example! I'll check out your blog. : )


Glad you enjoyed this and are passing my professor's knowledge on to more students. What do you teach?


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