Michelle Barker's books on Goodreads
Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii
ratings: 1 (avg rating 5.00)

The Beggar King The Beggar King
reviews: 8
ratings: 21 (avg rating 4.00)

Tesseracts 14: Strange Canadian Stories Tesseracts 14: Strange Canadian Stories
reviews: 4
ratings: 15 (avg rating 4.07)

Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales
reviews: 4
ratings: 14 (avg rating 3.79)

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God is in the Details


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about details.  

Breaking Bad is over, and if ever there was a show that paid attention to detail it was that one, from those ominous skull-tipped boots to the pink teddy bear with the missing eye that lands in Walt’s swimming pool.
After the finale I listened to Anna Gunn on Talking Bad compliment Vince Gilliganfor the care he took in incorporating minute detail into every scene he directed. It occurred to me that detail can make the difference in how we as readers or viewers believe in a scene.
In her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose has an excellent chapter on detail. “Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth,” she writes. It’s that one perfect detail that will nail a scene – the equivalent to Flaubert’s mot juste

But if God is in the details, remember there’s a flipside to that saying:  the devil is in them, too. 

 

The wrong details in a scene will leave your reader scratching his or her head in confusion. And perish the thought of the anachronistic detail – your reader might throw the book across the room.  A lack of detail creates vagueness and might send the message to your reader that you have not fully imagined your scene.  
In terms of characterization, the well-chosen detail – or, as New Zealand novelist Maurice Shadbolt calls it, the “precious particle” – can serve as a brilliant shorthand to nail a character even more effectively than long description would. If you want to go back to Breaking Bad (and I know you do), think of Bogdan’s eyebrows, Marie’s penchant for purple, Todd’s ringtone, Hector Salamanca’s bell. Notice that these are not particularly extreme (okay, maybe Bogdan’s eyebrows are extreme). But they’re memorable.
If the right detail makes a scene, too much detail can kill it. It’s a little like interior design. Tastefully done, it works. But too many paintings combined with too many frilled lampshades and embroidered cushions – and you cross the line into kitsch.
So how do you find that perfect detail, the one that makes your scene live for the reader? That’s the million-dollar question.  I find the simple exercise of closing my eyes and engaging all of my senses, being fully in the scene, can help.  I also find that my worst enemy is abstraction. Don’t say the room was a mess, or the attic stunk, or the shirt was ugly. The more specific you can be, the more your scene will come to life.
Probably the most helpful advice I’ve received?
Pay attention. To everything. And write it down. You’ll be surprised at the tiny details that come creeping into your scenes from real life.
Happy writing!