Sunday, August 5, 2012

Details, a Time-Traveling Drain, and the Short Story

We were all seated around a rough-hewn picnic table with our various drafts strewn in front of us when the topic of details came up. My writers group had reviewed one member's fascinating, inventive story, but it was missing a bit of life somehow. Perhaps details could infuse the piece with that spark of animation that it needed?

I had recently read a short story by Tania James, the second of hers that had come into my grubby hands. Both her stories glowed with emotion made vivid by detail. As it happened, another member of the group had a journal that held a third James story and, sure enough, the first paragraph was ripe with interesting minutiae.

How does detail help? Well, I should note that it's a matter of preference and style - some writers have written powerful stories that lack detail but rely instead on muscular verbs or fast-moving narratives. That works too. But for me, nothing gets my heart racing like a closely-observed detail. Something that the story could do without, but it would lose some of its spark. Sort of like how color on a living room wall really makes the room pop.

In her short story "Ethnic Ken," published in the most recent edition of Five Points, James starts off with an intriguing detail. She writes, "My grandfather believed that the guest bathroom drain was a portal for time travel." This grabs our attention with its weirdness but also has a delicate specificity that holds our attention. She continues a few paragraphs later, "My grandfather wore house slippers with pom poms at the toes. He could slice and de-seed an apple in the palm of his hand. He believed that he was trapped somewhere in 1929, with the nine-year old version of his wife, Ammu."

James could easily write her story without the pom poms or the apples. But we might not be sitting there with her gazing into it, mouths agape, with quite such intensity.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma