Read the fine print! Don’t sweat the small stuff! Contradictions abound–and there’s no shortage of such when it comes to defining the perfect balance of details in writing, and whether or not those details matter. (After all, if we don’t sweat the small stuff, we won’t read the fine print, will we?)
This chapter that we’re working on is all about crafting exact scenes using concrete and sensory details. What does it matter? Why should I bother? If it isn’t obvious, then read on. You’ll be sure to be surprised.
There’s a small sapling surrounded by rich, loamy soil. Its thin bark is still green with new life. Two or three leaves poke up from it, reaching toward the shafts of yellow sunlight falling through the leaves far above. A few steps past the sapling, over a pile of grey rocks and brown pebbles, over a patch of orange and red leaves left over from last autumn, over a small trickling of water puddling between the roots of a larger behemoth, yet another tree rises. This one is a few years older, the height of a small boy. Its dozen branches spread out and grasp the glow from the air, breathing in and breathing out the breath of the forest. Further along, there’s a stream, gurgling as it goes, water gushing forth over small boulders and down smaller rapids, wrapping around a dozen more, a hundred more trees on its way toward the sea.
Good writing should be evocative. Good writing should be able to build an image in the reader’s mind by relying on specific details that are tangible and objective–concrete–and details that appeal to each of the senses–sensory details. Through such particular descriptions, a more realistic and immersing image can be crafted. The challenge is merely learning how to use these details to your advantage.
The point of this exercise was to render an expansive scene with very specific, even limited details. Trying something once is good, but can barely teach a lesson without sufficient repetition. The example above was my first attempt at building a forest by building the trees, a play on that saying “you can’t see for the forest for the trees.” Instead of losing sight of the big picture by focusing on the small details, my aim was to use those small details to build the big picture.
But why end there? There are parts to my hearts, rooms as Jewel would say, some waiting for lightning and some waiting for you, that I can open and bring to life–so why should I not try?
* * *
When I was little, I was unruly and energetic. I still am, but they show in different ways. In any case, my older brother and I shared a room–a very small room–and neither of us was much inclined to sleep (I don’t think this has changed much in the last decade and a half, give or take another half decade) and we would often stay up playing with our Legos and our Hess Trucks. To put an end to this, I was often forced to fall asleep in my sister’s bed (since she had a later bed time than both of us) and then, when she went to bed, I was carried into my room to wake there in the morning.
This itself was not a problem, but being alone in a dark room was often as distracting as being with my brother. I’d pile up the pillows around me and dig myself under the covers, buddied up with my favorite stuffed animals all around. I would close my eyes and stir my mind and everything would begin to sway back and forth, back and forth…
There’s a small wooden corridor, dark planks aged and weathered and splintering in places. Three steps ahead are three steps rising to a wooden door. The entire corridor rocks this way and that, the ancient wood creaking and moaning as it’s tossed from side to side. The door swings open and shut, rattling every time it’s pummeled into the frame. On the other side, a wooden deck stretches out in all directions. Dark sheets of rain splatter against everything in sight. Shouts and yells emanate from key points in the deluge; a flash of lightning illuminates a towering mast some ways off and the tentacular ropes swinging in the ruthless wind. A deckhand and two others grab one such tendril and try to pull it into position as a swell rises and crashes, sweeping across the wooden deck and pouring into the corridor. The door continues to rattle whenever it swings shut, a lesser thunder than the lightning’s howl outside.
After I escaped the pirates–for inevitably, they had somehow always captured me–I’d drift on a dinghy or just a bit of broken ship (you know what I mean, when the ship’s been blown apart and massive rafts have formed from the shattered hull) and there I’d drift along, rocking, swaying, basking in the sunlight until sleep overtook me…
* * *
More important than pirates in my youth is the world I’ve built from the ground up, from the way the atoms have clicked together and the way the spirit realms have aligned. Its been budding in my mind since before I was twelve, and in the past decade plus years it’s grown more defined and more pronounced and more massive than in many ways I can confine it and define it.
To this land, I long to return. Its story, still unwritten, must yet be told.
Frothy waves wash against white sand at the southern point of the land, crashing in small sighs of release. Footsteps break the unblemished beach, leading up to hilly fields where grasses grow tall and blow back and forth in the wind. Seeds like small feathers cling to every strand and when a powerful wind forces its way from the sea, they break from the grasses and look like snowflakes carried along toward a forest. One tree–bark covered, tall and sturdy–a second–thicker, taller, as the space around it grows darker and the ground, only a few feet back covered in brush and saplings, now only a blanket of dark, rich soil, the sunlight too far removed for much life to prosper. Miles onward, a single tree rises greater than all the rest. Sprawling archways are carved into its sides and men and women walk up and down these stairways. Higher, higher, it grows, and rounder, broader, than any other tree could ever be. Upon the first branch, a single house has been carved into the wood, a palace of soft beige, glowing in the twilit aura surrounding it, and on its far side, another house, and then another, until the entire branch has become its own city. And still, those arching walkways carve upwards, ever upwards, onward toward the sky and the unrestrained sunlight above the clouds…
And yet! Yet this is only a fraction of the world I see in my mind. The White Plains, the Black Mountains, the Eastern Range, the island far removed from the mainland, pocked with grottoes and beaches and weather one moment peaceful, furious the next… And further north, far further north than this, the crags where dragons live….
Writing that, I felt like Tolkien trying to build Middle Earth in fifty words. Too much to be said, too much to be lost if the right details are not shared at just the right moment–that is the challenge I now face.
Nature holds a special place in my heart, and reading these scenes, it’s even more obvious how much this is so. I felt engaged writing these passages–did you feel the same? Was my choice of details able to draw you in and build such a detailed scene that reading it, you forgot you were reading anything–that in the end, it all felt real?
Let me know. Give me feedback. Help me learn.