The Devil is in the Detail

The Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge

I hate detail. Literary detail I mean, at least for myself. I’ll be completely drawn in to the stunning scenes described by writers like Cormac McCarthy, and yet when I attempt that sort of intricacy I just feel like I’m trying to be Cormac McCarthy. Not an ounce of my personal ability lies in that kind of breadth and depth of creative descriptive power.

Events are my forte. I can lay down the facts and permutations of a situation as well as any, but ask me to describe the meeting room or lyrically illustrate the speaker at the dais and I’m reduced to crude simplicity. “It’s a big square room with a blue carpet and lots of chairs, and the chap is wearing a suit and appears nervous. The conference slogan behind him is asinine. Shocker.”

Generally speaking, I can’t stand articles of any topic that go to great lengths to “set the scene”. It seems that any journalist waiting to interview someone of note is particularly guilty of this crime. “Waiting in the lounge of the Fictional Hotel for the Singer, there was a calm aura of expectation amidst the soft golden lamp lights. The oversoft silky black sofa was hurting my lower back and the Singer was ten minutes late, but I hadn’t noticed because of the placid tones of the jazz piano.”

Couldn’t care less. Stop aggrandizing your own importance in this situation and conduct the interview thus, if you don’t mind, “I met the Singer and here’s what we talked about.” I’m never going to hold your over-prepared scenery in my mind while picturing the conversation, so you’ve wasted everyone’s time and have come across as a bit egotistical.

It just doesn’t work for me in journalism. I want the relevant details and even in an article where it could help one’s understanding to accurately imagine the setting, I’d rather avoid the self-indulgent excess. I’ve always thought an actual picture would do the trick a good deal better. Really, the root of the problem for me is that heavy description only hinders my ability to mentally envisage something.

If a writer said to me, “a warzone,” I have the imaginative capacity to put a scene in my mind. Labouring over the precise arrangements of the rubble or bodies, or trying to tell me exactly what the old half-ruined church looks like across the square from the schoolhouse, is where you start to lose me. Unless your Cormac McCarthy or a similarly Pulitzer Prize worthy writer of course, but not many are. A writer’s own vision is absolutely important, but not at the expense of the reader’s imagination.

The writing challenge this week, for which this article is for, uses a perfect example, “The dog ran across the street,” versus, “The small, black, three-legged Chihuahua darted under a red Ford Focus and hopped across the wet cobblestone alley.” The writing challenge is actually encouraging the latter, as we were encouraged to flex our descriptive powers. I argue that unless any of those details were relevant, to the plot or tone, the former is better.

Hemingway is hailed for not wasting words, especially in a masterclass such as “Old Man and the Sea.” He gives you precisely the right amount of information to enable his vision with enough room for your own imagination to enrich it. That is great writing. Short of the kind of possibly unattainable poetic genius of McCarthy, Hemingway has a style I would love to achieve.

The devil is indeed in the detail, hence I shall stay well away from it.

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1 Comment

Filed under Weekly Writing Challenge

One response to “The Devil is in the Detail

  1. All the way until the last paragraph I thought, Hemingway is all over this. So of course the final thoughts made me smile.

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