Contradicting details

The Frankfurt kitchen using Taylorist principles
Image via Wikipedia

More than half way through the Writer’s Digest 25 Ways to Improve Your Writing in 30 Minutes a Day article, and I think I’m getting to the tips that are either repeating the first 13 tips, or going over my head.

Let’s review the 14th tip:

14. Effective Details
The key to effective description is to realize the importance of contradictions. The telling detail is almost always one that at first glance doesn’t seem to fit, but by its being there creates the unique whole that the object or action or person represents.

Go to a good people-watching spot or a place you want to describe. What’s the thing that doesn’t quite belong? Pair one or two more typical attributes of the thing/person/scene with this anomaly, and judge the impression. If it differs from what you meant to describe, figure out what’s missing. Add as few details as possible.

A related point: Often, we read a description and think, If this is therethen that has to be there as well. Many writers then think that both details must be included, but usually the opposite is true. Provide the stronger, more typical of the two, and the other is implied; the reader’s mind supplies it automatically.

This seems to tie into the being precise tip and the word choice tip, but slightly different.

So, let’s say we wanted to describe a scene in a kitchen.  I wouldn’t need to tell the reader there’s a sink, stove and refrigerator (we’re talking about a modern kitchen here), the reader will fill that in when I write “she walked into the kitchen”.  What the reader may not know is that the mid-morning light coursing through the picture window is reflecting off the polished, granite counter-tops, blinding our hero as a reptilian alien points its weapon at her…

Or something like that.

I think this particular piece of advice is about choosing the details that bring that kitchen (or castle, or forest, or whatever) to life.  What are the first things you notice when you walk into a room?  The floor?  The smell?  The lighting or lack of lighting?  Or is it the anomalies that stand out?  Do you notice the piled dishes in the sink?  The stench of spoiled food?  Or the broken glass of the light fixtures?

Hmmm, this tip requires that I explore it in more depth.  I’ll try to apply the lesson to a flash piece.



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