a world full of things that are happening elsewhere

I’ve become aware recently of a writing technique I’ve developed over the last couple of years. Its genesis was probably in my lessons with Sonia Orchard, who could always be counted on to say, “This is very general. I want a specific detail.” (As well as “What does this mean?” and “I don’t understand this at all.”)

Her constant search for more detail made sense to me when she put it like this: When you remember high school you don’t remember this general thing that comprises all your experiences. You remember specific things, and High School is attached to those things.

That made a lot of sense to me, so I started writing More Detail.

I started using sensory details from a character’s life to describe the current moment. For example, when my hero is suffering a panic attack, what he thinks is:

It wasn’t the squeezing, suffocating pain he had suffered before. It darted and flickered at his muscles, threatening at every moment to crash through him. He thought of the waves he had watched as a boy at Stonehaven. The stones had ground and shifted beneath his feet on the beach, their mottled grey an off-kilter reflection of the sky. He remembered the sea, huge and steely, muscling its way up, against the pull of gravity. Crashing back onto itself, pounding the foam knit across its surface.

The duchess had been wearing a pale pink coat and bonnet over a darker pink dress with small panniers. He remembered how her round, placid face had pinched, her lips unsure as she told Nanny not to let him so close to the water.

If he let the pain descend, it would kill him.

I think this was the passage where I first became aware of what I was doing. It’s not backstory – his memory isn’t moving the narrative along in a plot sense. It’s hard to articulate, but I think it’s this:

Humans learn to interpret their sense-experience as they grow up and gain points of reference. They (we) create a personal paradigm through which we understand everything else that happens to us.

By using snippets of memory from the character’s learning period (and the example I’ve given is quite a long one, it can just be a quick association), the fictional world becomes self-referential and immediately feels more real. Suddenly the part of the character’s life that we’re watching is not all that exists – we’re also made aware of everything that has made them, and of the complex and entirely subjective way they process the world.

This isn’t a technique I invented – I’m pretty sure it’s just another way of looking at the iceberg theory – but thinking about it from this angle works for me.

Comments 7 Responses

    1. anna cowan Post author

      thanks for dropping by Serena. Writing technique is such a subjective thing, that you never know whether it will be useful to try and explain your process to other people. I find I can’t help myself though 🙂

  1. bleu_bleuet

    What a wonderful, wonderful post!

    I love it when writers use this technique, suddenly the setting becomes more than décor to have the characters walk through and stub their toe on 😀 “[…] we’re also made aware of everything that has made them […]” YESSSSSS!
    And suddenly they don’t seem like a Westerner wearing a baseball cap and blue t-shirt and trainers in the rainforest, but like one of the natives with a sinewy, dark body that melts to tree stems and a loincloth of such dark brown red that you feel the earth might have bled out into them.
    It’s what I noticed reading the excerpt from “my lady untamed” you put online. The characters’ thoughts seem like a continuous string, influenced, furthered and altered by memories and other thoughts that we are not introduced to but can feel existing somewhere out of imediate reach.
    They seem part of their world. Unique individuals.

    I wondered whether you etablish a – what to call it? Set of emotions? Reference to memories? Past thoughts? – by describing it once very thoroughly and then reffering back to that experience with key words? Like “Got the cream?” instead of “You look like the cat who got the cream”.
    Which is probably a good way to bring back a set of emotions to the readers without having to go back to the whole experience. I think this also allows to show that a certain memory was particularely defining to the character. On the other hand the character might start to seem stagnant and then all the premise would be lost. Or the reference might become meaningless, being used to often.
    Or are you doing the above – thorough description – and then expand on it troughout the book by adding in more and more emotions and maybe changing them by taking them back up in the light of knew experiences and knowledge?
    Or do you try to desctibe the same thing anew every time, to create the same emotions, only with different words?

    I am curious.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      this is interesting for me, having to think about the HOW of the process in a bit more depth. Sometimes it is a scene I’ve written out in full elsewhere. This mainly happens when I’ve written the scene as a flashback or part of the narrative (mostly in an older draft) and then I find myself referencing it, because I now know very clearly what actually happened. This definitely allows you to reference a whole world of feeling with just a couple of images. I don’t always use the exact images from that piece of writing – I think I try and find small details that have the biggest emotional impact. I’ve just written a scene where my heroine’s remembering all her family’s possessions being taken away, and I thought “What are the things it would hurt her most to see in a stranger’s hands?”. Say the answer was a doll, then I would focus on the shiny glass eyes of the doll, or if it was her books, I’d name some of them specifically.

      Often I’m just pulling random images out of my brain, though :-). I guess if I understand the emotional resonance of a scene, then I do what I mentioned above, and ask myself what would have an emotional punch. In the example I gave in the post, it’s not an obvious equation of “he’s in pain, he remembers something painful”, because that scene is more about the melancholy of lost childhood, and the feeling that he is small and vulnerable in a world that he doesn’t always understand.

      I hope any of that’s useful! I enjoyed trying to figure my process out a bit more.

      1. bleu_bleuet

        It did help. Most of all it was very interesting.
        I like atmospheric writing a lot, so I spent a good amout of time thinking about it.
        For me, memories and emotions are part of the environment of a character. When they arrive it is blank, but the longer the stay the fuller the rooms and the gardens or whatever become. So for me objects, odours and other sensory impressions are really important as memory triggers.

        I guess most of what makes my characters comes from the outside and not from within themselves. In that sense they are passive most of the time even though they *do* take action. When they finally start *creating* their memories, rather than simply noting them as residue of something that has happened to them and going along with it, it is as if they were waking up for the first time.
        The difference between making a choice because you think you have to decide that way, and deciding for solution recognizing it as a possibility among many.

        I think, apart from everything said above (including your original post and your answer to my questions), maybe it is possible to evoke memories by using the same structure of description as in an earlier memory scene? So that the reader sees the similarities and differences, without them having to be written out.

  2. bleu_bleuet

    Another question: Can you see the last comment I made on your previous post? Because I cannot, even though this site tells me I have double posted.

    I am confused.

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