Choosing details

It was an early writerly lesson for me that one specific detail is worth ten generalizations. If you come to the ruins of a city, it’s less powerful to say “there were ruins everywhere,” than to linger on one specific half-fallen wall (and the one rusted hinge still clinging to the stone doorway, perhaps, though the door itself–wood?–has long turned to dust), or on one specific blackened candlestick poking out of the rubble.

Ever since then, the trick has been learning to choose the right specific details–which is different from simply choosing accurate specific details. There are a million items to be found in the ruins of the city, and no story has room for them all.

I was thinking about this as I rewrote a scene last week–set not beside a ruined city, but beside a burned castle. In my first draft, I’d had my young characters discovering a bit of blackened bone–or blackened rock, my protagonist hopes but doesn’t believe–among the ashes. I was proud of this detail. It was the first indication that real people with real lives had been in that castle–something we needed to know–and I found it creepy and eerie at once. But as I came to the scene in rewrite, it felt wrong.

Not because I’d described it badly (though I did have a research note to double-check just how bone burns). Rather I realized that, realistic and believable though it was, my bit of burned bone was out of tone with the rest of the story. I enjoy writing dark; but the rest of this particular story wasn’t as dark as the detail I’d chosen. In another story, it might fit quite well; not here.

And after thinking about it, I realized there were other details that would get us to the same place as that bit of bone. So I let my protagonist find a key in the ashes, instead, a key that the Queen never lets out of her sight–meaning that if the key was abandoned here now, something had to be very, very wrong. Which brings out the same reality of people being trapped in a burning castle, but without breaking with the tone of the rest of the book. And I’d been wondering how to get that key into my protagonist’s hands–so the detail even serves double duty.

I’m sure there are still burned bones in those ashes, too. But just because I know they’re there, doesn’t mean they’re the right detail to show the reader. Not in this story–but of course, I’ll hang on to that bit of description, in case another story wants it, later.

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