Friday, May 18, 2012

Little and Big Detail

Springtime is my favorite season, and wildflowers are a major attraction here in beautiful western Montana.  The parade has begun, starting with buttercups in March and continuing through a roadside trio of larkspur, star flower, and biscuit root—purple, white, and yellow, a combo that would make a beautiful flag.
I’m celebrating the season by taking a class in wildflower journalling, both because I love the flowers and because I am not fundamentally a detail person.  A class like this, where I’m sketching the plants to document them, forces me to switch into the often neglected detail mode.  And I know, as a writer, that details are critical in bringing my writing to life.  Details help the reader ‘see’ what you’re writing about and can jump start a movie in the brain that will carry your reader seamlessly through your work.  This principle can be used to lead a reader through a sequence of ideas or information to a conclusion every bit as well as to carry the reader along through an exciting fiction story.

While pondering these thoughts as I climbed a trail up the mountain we live on, I noticed delicate yellow-flowered Arnica plants blooming in the dappled shade I leaned over and focused in on a single plant with my camera to document it for my wildflower project.  Further up the slope, I saw an image that epitomized Arnica’s habitat preference—an oval of tall pines created a shady spot decorated by a patch of Arnica, its borders sketched by the shade of the trees.  I suddenly realized that two kinds of detail exist, small detail and big detail.  Small detail would encompass the minute features of each plant, while big detail consisted of larger but still specific features such as the way the plants are growing in the shady patch among the pines.

When we writers wish to create images for our readers, we may move from small detail to big detail, or vice versa, depending on where we’re going with our words.  Here’s the masterful nonfiction introduction from my friend Jeanette Ingold’s Montana Book Award Honor Book novel, “The Big Burn” that moves through many small details, then widens to the big picture:

The wildfires had been burning for weeks.
They’d been born of sparks thrown from steam-driven trains and from the machinery of backcountry logging.  They’d started in the working fires of homesteaders and miners and in the campfires of hobos and in the trash-burning fires of construction camps and saloon towns.  They’d begun when lightning had coursed down from an uneasy summer sky to ignite the towering snags of dry forests.
The wildfires lay behind a brown haze that was beginning to shroud mountaintops and drift like dirty fog through the forests of the Idaho panhandle.  Though no one then knew it, they were fires that would join ranks and run in a vast wall of flame.
When they did, it would be called the big blowup, the great burn, the Big Burn.

At this point, we know we have to read on—we couldn’t stop.

  We know that detail can draw us into a piece of writing, but it can do more.  Here’s an example of how simple detail can inspire the reader’s imagination, from another award winner by a friend, Peggy Christian’s “If You Find a Rock:”

Then again,
you might find a rock
with a stripe running
all the way around it.
Trace the line
with your finger—
it must circle all the way.
you have a wishing rock,
and you whisper
what you want
before you throw it.

If you get stuck in your writing and feel you’re not drawing your readers in with your prose, think about finding a way to use a telling detail to start that inner ‘movie’ going and widen your perspective from there.  Or, if the goal is to have your readers focus on the small details, start with the big and gradually work down to the small.


Vicki Cobb said...

Terrific post, Dorothy. I like to think that I write about BIG ideas decorated with facts. The facts or "factoids" are details born of incredible intense observation and experimentation. In science, it is the cumulative observation of myriad details that lead to the great generalizations of science also known as "inductive reasoning" going from the specific to the general. In writing it is all about "show, don't tell."

Dorothy Patent said...

So it is, Vicki. I read a wise phrase in a blog this week that says 'show don't tell' in different words, maybe not always applicable to science--"Write to express, not to impress." But it can certainly apply for writing such as my books, if I'm talking about traipsing through the rain forest or some such activity.

Fortunate One said...

How nice of you, Dorothy, to quote from The Big Burn. I have an older copy of the book, and found it to be a fascinating story with an engaging style. It was my bedside book for a week. It didn't hurt that I wanted to be fire ranger when I was a kid. And I connected to your post because I'm
a former horticulturist. Every post is a gem.

MJ Wentz (lurker and fan)

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Wonderful post, Dorothy - and you practiced what you preached! Love the arnica photos.

Dorothy Patent said...

I loved hearing from you, Fortunate One; I feel fortunate to be in a critique group with Jeanette. She always has great comments on the work of others, and it's always a pleasure to help her hone her work as well. I'm going to copy your comment to her; she will surely appreciate it!

And Gretchen--I can't resist with the camera; it goes everywhere with me! Thanks for the comment.