Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Details of de Tales

When my husband and I visit historical sites like Sutter’s Fort, I read plaques, and he stares at the machinery. We occasionally trade roles, but it’s our go-to process. I put the whozit into a historical context for him, and he explains how it works. Details enrich our experience, and in both history and literature, they bring the inanimate to life.

For the details to feel true, they need enough accuracy or plausibility to keep the reader engaged. I know that international spies never call attention to themselves. But, when James Bond walks off with eighty million dollars after winning in baccarat, a reader simply turns the page for more. Ian Fleming, author of twelve Bond novels, created dapper Agent 007 with sufficient meat and bone and sinew to fill a proper tuxedo.

Exacting nouns and precise adjectives are the paints clinging to the hairs on my authorial brush. It doesn’t matter if I’m describing a denial-of-service attack, showing a robot clean the house, or riffing on the underbelly world of the deep web. If I put a single dot on a canvas, it looks marred. If I fling the brush, it looks like a Jackson Pollock.

Interesting, but it leaves the creative work open for broad interpretation. Writers usually want more control over the reader’s take-away. If I place my dots with care, choose the color of each with intent, I can depict a lazy outing near the river Seine or a haunting self-portrait.

I’ve learned that I can’t read all the plaques when I visit a place like Sutter’s Fort. There are more than I have time to read and still see all the exhibits. And many aren’t interesting. It becomes too many details and not enough context–tedious work instead of enjoyment. I want illumination on the aspects that appeal to me.

So, how does an author know what details to add and what details to omit? 

By definition, romance in a thriller is relegated to sub-plot status. Maybe the protagonist wins a heart, but there's no guarantee. And generally, I don't care. I'd rather see the smokin' hot love interest turn out to be a double agent with a Kimber Solo 9mm tucked somewhere handy.

In a thriller, the elements that need rich detail are the protagonist and antagonist, their motivations and challenges.  But mostly, I want action, intrigue. I want to know what kind of rifle was used to put the bullet in the diplomat’s back, but I don’t need to know how to field-strip it. Hollow-point? Round point? Full-metal jacket? Okay, but to warrant a discussion on the merits of each, I expect it to involve a coroner’s report or an assassin’s checklist, or the author will lose me as a reader. 

I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged years ago, a veritable doorstop of a book. And while I don’t remember the wording, she wrote a line about the movement of Dagny Taggart’s arm, which so perfectly captured the action, I caught myself moving my own in the same fashion. If anyone knows the line I’m referring to, please let me know. However, I saw the John Galt filibuster coming chapters ahead of its arrival and subsequently skimmed the forty-plus-page monologue with zero loss of signal resolution. By the time he showed up, I could have given his speech.
I include all the story-essential details plus a snippet or two of something the reader doesn’t likely know about the subject–without turning it into a lecture. I want to entertain, but the technical worlds I explore need some illumination for most readers. A candle. A torch. And if not an actual light, well, I’ll at least leave a few plaques along the way. 

What details we include depends on the genre, the audience, and the writer’s own interest. Genre readers have certain expectations. Some genres leave little room for experimentation. I can ignore the expectations at my own risk. No one has to love me. Except my husband.

Helen Hanson works in the high-tech sector, which informs her geeky thrillers. According to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, her # 1 bestselling technothriller, 3 LIES, contains “an artistry that is hard to deny.”
Currently, she’s writing a sequel to 3 LIES. You can find all her thrillers in the usual places. And you can find her at coddling a goblet of red.


Peter Hogenkamp said...

Loved the Post, Helen! And I agree, the Devil is in the details.

Sue Coletta said...

Awesome post, Helen! You are so right. I hate when a book focuses on insignificant details. It makes you think, as a reader, that the object means something when in reality it doesn't. A friend just told me about a book where the author made a big deal about showing a character's shocked reaction while looking at a painting, like the eyes were staring back at her or something. It turns out there was nothing special about that painting, so why did the author write about it at length? My friend re-read the ending twice to see if she had missed something. She didn't, which ultimately ruined the ending of the novel for her.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Peter.

Unknown said...

Left the gun on the mantlepiece without shooting it, eh? Tsk, tsk.
Bad form.

Take care, Sue.

Joe Clifford said...

Every musician knows: it's not the notes you play, but the notes you DON'T play that matter most. Nice post!

Anonymous said...

Great post. SHOWS us how to do it right!

Unknown said...

I play spoons. Does that count?

Unknown said...

I actually like that Pollock piece.

Arthur Kerns said...

Details, details. Most important as a credible writer.

Unknown said...


Unknown said...

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