Every story seeks, according to Emerson: the “invisible and imponderable.” To get at the emotional truths that hide in shadows and lie buried under surfaces, to get at those hidden truths, adds Anthony Doerr (author of All The Light We Cannot See), writing in Four Seasons in Rome, “The reader first and foremost must be convinced. And details—the right details in the right places—do the convincing.”
If details do the convincing, then it’s convincing details we should find in the stories we admire.
Consider two examples.
The first, The Black Echo, an early novel in the Harry Bosch detective thriller series by Michael Connelly, asks us to believe both that an actual body has been found (we need to start with a crime after all) and that an investigation of that body is undertaken by an actual coroner called to the crime scene. Here is Connelly’s description of the coroner’s first look at a “stiff” found in a reservoir drain pipe: “He had a plastic fishing tackle box open on the ground next to him. He took a scalpel from the box and made a one-inch long cut into the side of the body, just above the left hip. No blood came from the slice. From the box he then removed a thermometer and attached it to the end of a curved probe. He stuck it into the incision, expertly though roughly turning it and driving it up into the liver. ‘Time of death is going to be a pisser,’ Sakai said. He did not look up from his work. ‘That pipe, you know, with the heat rising, it’s going to skew the temperature loss in the liver.’ This passage is followed by a continuation of the exam: “He took a pencil from behind his ear and pressed the eraser against the skin on the side of the torso. There was a purplish blotching on the half of the body closest to the ground, as if the body were half full of red wine. It was post-mortem lividity. When the heart stops pumping, the blood seeks the low ground. When Sakai pressed the pencil against the dark skin, it did not blanch white, a sign the blood had fully clotted.”
Okay. What emotional truths hide behind this screen of morbid detail?
Well, first the reader has to believe that this world is real, that the body is real, that the guy on the job is not just a fictional straw-dummy doing what the plot strings make him do. I am not an avid reader of detective thrillers. But this attention to detail convinced me to stay with the story long enough to wonder, who is this guy? Why did he have to die? Why would the detective risk his job, not to mention his reputation and sense of self-worth, to probe into the mystery of what happened when everyone else on the case is ready to blow it off as just another drug overdose, and good riddance?
Case number two. The opening of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece, Oryx and Crake, offers equally convincing detail, but turned to another purpose: “On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender. The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon. The shrieks of the birds that nest out there and the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic. Out of habit he looks at his watch – stainless—steel case, burnished aluminum band, still shiny although it no longer works. He wears it now as his only talisman. A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour. It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. Nobody nowhere knows what time is.”
What is Atwood doing with her details that’s different? Both authors use details to convince the reader to willingly enter their dream world. Connelly favors be-here-now observational surface details. Atwood favors atmospheric details that invite us to feel what it’s like to share this world with Snowman, its lonely inhabitant.
Both authors use detail to do what Doerr claims it is a writer’s job to do: to “knit together scraps of dreams. She (the author) hunts down the most vivid details and links them in sequences that will let a reader see, smell, and hear a world that seems complete in itself; she builds a stage set and painstakingly hides all the struts and wires and nail holes, then stands back and hopes whoever might come to see it will believe.”
When the details work, you believe.