Details, Details

I have to give a presentation on "authenticating details" today. It's an assignment for my community college fiction workshop. It's just beginner's stuff, because it's really an introductory level class. But it's keeping me honest, and I have plenty to learn. Plus, this kind of thing is probably good practice, considering I'll be teaching sometime soonish! I can hardly believe it, me---teaching. Exciting and strange.

This is from the handout I made (I have a partner, but I'm only including the parts I prepared):


Authenticating details are details that reveal something particular about who a character is—something about their personality, background, situation, emotional state etc. When these kinds of revealing details are specific and unique, they work to make us believe the character—they authenticate the character for the reader.

Sometimes, authenticating details are called significant details. This is from pages 26-29 of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French:

Specific, definite, concrete, particular details—these are the life of fiction. Details (as every good liar knows) are the stuff of persuasiveness. (26)

A detail is “definite” and “concrete” when it appeals to the senses. It should be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. (26)

The [...] writer must deal in sense detail [and] these details must be details “that matter. [You must] mean more than you say. (27)

A detail is concrete if it appeals to one of the five senses; it is significant if it also conveys an idea or a judgment or both. The windowsill was green is concrete, because we can see it. The windowsill was shedding flakes of fungus-green paint is concrete and also significant because it conveys an idea that the paint is old and suggests the judgment that the color is ugly. The second version can also be seen more vividly. (27)

[...] if you are to realize your characters through detail, you must be careful to select the details that convey the characteristics essential to our understanding. You must select the significant. (29)

No amount of concrete detail will move us [...] unless it also implicitly suggests meaning and value. (29)

Writing Fiction also points out that “active verbs [...] tend to call forth significant details” (34). Here is a comparison from the book:

A general verb creates a general impression, but a precise, active verb conveys the exact picture in the reader’s mind. For example:

General Specific

walk------ Does the waiter scurry or amble?
yell------- Does the coach demand or bellow?
swim----- Does the child splash or glide?
climb----- Does the hiker stumble up the hill or stride?

Exercises, from page 203 of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers:

Describe a landscape as seen by an old woman whose disgusting and detestable old husband has just died. Do not mention the husband or death.

Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.

Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death, or the old man doing the seeing; then describe the same building, in the same weather and at the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover. Do not mention love or the loved one.


We also have a few examples, and our own little exercise, involving
this picture from Found Magazine.


Ms. Sushi said...

This is a cool assignment. I never had to do anything like that for a workshop, but I think it would really have helped me. Might steal this idea when I teach creative writing!

found said...

The presentation went well. I agree, it's a helpful kind of assignment, because it makes you really focus on a certain craft point and simmer it down to the basics. When I was taking Arabic, I realized that explaining something to other people went a long way to deepening my own understanding.

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