|A lake and two small boats give
context to Munch’s painting
I’m not suggesting there’s any need to describe an entire room or tell the reader the exact time of day, but rather to stroke in a detail much as a painter might do. If you examine a painting closely, you may discover that the person in the background is just a line squiggle with a touch of brown at the top to suggest hair and a swish of red to suggest a skirt or as in Munch’s The Scream: two small boats in lake.
These details do not need to be written into a piece immediately in the rough draft–get the story down first–but can be added in the revision stage of the process once the writer understands what details will best serve the story in a thematic way.
So detail, if carefully chosen, can suggest setting, foreshadow events (remember Chekov’s gun), as well as deepen character, and underline theme.
Water drips from icicles outside the kitchen window. Clear skies glisten through dirty glass panes. I’m pouring my first cup of coffee when I hear snow sliding down the roof and know it’s time to call Carissa.
|This image sets scene as well as mood|
This is the opening to my story, “Spring Melt.” It’s a stroke like a painter’s stroke. The whole house isn’t given, not even a whole kitchen, just the suggestion of a house because it has a kitchen, dirty window panes, and a sloping roof. There is a sense that winter is passing into spring and that brings the narrator to a decision to call some woman. It’s a specific image to carry the reader into the next paragraph, but also to give the story context and later, a thematic pay-off.
Showing tension between characters through dialogue becomes easier when there is a trait or detail in the story that sparks deep feelings. Here’s a brief exchange between Anna and Matt from “She Can’t Say No” to show how this can work.
…Alone at the table, Matt asks Anna how she knows his friend, Kerrick, a fast-track kind of guy, gel in his hair and Hugo Boss shoes.
“I met him once,” she says and smiles. When she smiles, the scar on her upper lip whitens. Sometimes when he wakes up alone in the morning, thinking of her, the word “harelip” pops into his brain. He’s hinted to her about childhood operations, bringing up tonsillectomies, appendectomies, avoiding the words “quadrilateral mirault flap,” but she says nothing.
Looking at her mouth now, he can almost feel its slight ridge on his tongue. He coughs. “And?”
“And what, Matthew?”
“You were flirting.”
“I know.” She slips the side of her naked foot along Matt’s calf and tucks it behind his knee. “I’m sorry.”
Sometimes a story may work without specific detail, but going deeper can often be as easy as changing a word or two, adding a line, using a bit of dialogue, or throwing in a specific detail that gives the reader context for the unfolding events like Anna’s slipping her naked foot behind Matt’s knee. She has the power and he knows it.