Thursday, May 03, 2007

Beyond the Mundane

Still Life with Bread and Eggs,
Paul Cezanne, 1865.
Oil on canvas,
Cincinnati Art Museum.

We read advice about cliff-hanger chapter endings, sizzling dialogue, and plot twists that leave the main character up piranha creek, bleeding.

These engaging elements are, however, basically technical.

What lifts a story, a passage, above the merely competent?

Sometimes, it's small things.

The writer nails an emotion, an action, an observation, an experience - a realism to which the reader relates or recognizes.

Such may be entirely personal to the reader - which may explain why some readers will extoll a piece while others will lift eyebrows and say: it didn't work for me.

Three examples from writers on my sidebar:

Jeff put up a story - where a wife rushes to the hospital after a phone call telling her her husband has collapsed - on the way she says aloud, "Sweetheart, I'm coming."

Been there. Said that.

Bailey posted an excerpt last month about an amnesiac hero trying to recognize memories in his dreams: "Real things could be grabbed and dealt with. It was the seemingly benign, the places, the people, flashes of people's faces, not clear enough to hold unto, to trust as memories...these were the true demons of the night."

Thought that was an acute insight, beyond conventional nightmare.

WrittenWyrdd posted a piece on EE for his "kiss passage" exercise.

Frustrated by constant needling from a co-worker, the character grabs and kisses him. His first impulse was to fend her off.

Bingo. Realism. Refreshing.

Memorable writing is more than just pretty prose.


writtenwyrdd said...

Oooh, this is what I've been considering lately. Yesterday, I read an article by Orson Scott Card (a dialog with John Brown, actually) where he discusses just this. I don't know how to do a link, but the url is

For me, a good read resonates emotionally on some level, good or bad. I literally feel haunted by a good story when it's over. I particularly love the ambiguous endings or the bittersweet choices.

I think what I take away from a book that makes me go Wow, and sigh and wish to be a part of the book is that

1. No story character's problems are resolved without regrets.
2. Epic scope, in the sense that, big or small, something that matters is at stake.
3. The writing must suck me in so that I get invested in this goal, too.
4. The world seems real, and I want it to exist, want to go visit. That means don't spare the description, but don't drown me in it like Tolkien. (As a kid, it was great; but now I find reading him is like plowing a field without the ox.)

This "it" factor is difficult to define. I suppose that's because it's individual.

And I'm gonna use this for my blog post today. Thanks for another great post, Bernita!

Bernita said...

Card deals with the macro level of writing a story, I think, Written.
I'm just commenting on the micro level - little things that give a reader confidence in a writer, a story.

writtenwyrdd said...

On reread, I see what you mean. The bricks and the building. Both are important.

We are having a gorgeous spring day today. We didn't even have a frost last night! And I have five days off coming up in which I can get the flower beds mulched and trimmed and the new plantings in. It's so nice, when you can go play in the mud once more!

Ric said...

From Patry Francis' The Liar's Diary - "My clothes were so wet I could smell the sheep who'd contributed their wool to my sweater,.."
and this -
"I thought morbidly and incessantly of her lying in the ground in her satin-lined box. Beneath the earth. Beneath our feet. Beneath the dark."

Little bits of writing that make you stop and say, "Wow."

Love it when that happens.

Bernita said...

Perhaps what I'm trying to describe, Written - and not doing a very good job at it - is the sense of authenticity in minor things.
Perhaps superior writing manages to convey items/takes like these in every scene.

Indeed, Ric, lovely writing.

Jaye Wells said...

I love those moments when I read something and say, "Yes! I wish I thought of that description." That's the power of avoiding cliche.

Robyn said...

I think your key word there is relatable. Even in fantastical worlds and outlandish situations, if the reactions and emotions ring true I'm hooked.

Bernita said...

Partly the avoidance of rote, Jaye, but I think it's more than just creative spark.
Makes you glad and delighted someone did.
Like a subconscious awareness of a detail that satisfies you when it is mentioned.

Perhaps that's it, Robyn - an identification. I think writers who manage this, even in small ways, have something special.

Anonymous said...

When a story sucks me in, I feel wonderful. When I have to think too much about what the author meant, time to close the book.

ORION said...

You know I really think it is the small details about a character -- about a story -- that allows the reader to be fully immersed in the world.
Bernita really hits it squarely on the head...
It IS the small details.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I think it's when a writer really hits upon what's important about their character, their setting, or the scene that makes or breaks a book for me. I'm not a huge fan of strict brevity, but I like pared down detail so that the writer gives me what I need to know, just enough for empathy.

Bernita said...

I agree, Steve.I have no patience with writers who play coy. It's their story, let them tell it instead of messing about and playing mind games.

Thank you, Pat.
In Lottery,my husband noticed your casual mention of "bounce."
One of the most endearing things for me was another small situational detail: Perry telling his grandfather he loves him.

Bernita said...

Yes, SS, I will forgive a lot if certain details are well managed.

Sam said...

Good writing is like good wine - it's a question of taste, yes - but there is something indubitable about good wine that even an amateur can recognize. Good wine comes from grapevines that grow in poor soil - their roots reach deeply into the rocky ground seeking sustenance and their grapes are small and bitter - but once pressed and aged, their juice is smooth and velvety, tickles the senses, leaves a lasting impression - and intoxicates.
I've only had a few glasses of excellent wine - and it's a taste I can't forget.
Good writing is like that.

Bernita said...

Interesting simile, Sam.
However, when pressed, I'm forced to say I just hope to produce a reasonable plonk.

writtenwyrdd said...

"Exact and vivid words make an exact and vivid world." Ursula K. LeGuin.

Thought you'd like this one.

Bernita said...

Indeed I do, WWritten.
Thank you.

Charles Gramlich said...

Excellent. This brings us back to the reality of the writing. sometimes we get too far afield and forget that the basic point is to communicate;.

spyscribbler said...

So true! It's those little details that ring so true, that you feel you know it's like.

It's kinda like teaching. Connect what they know, with what they don't.

Jeff said...

Thanks for the compliment on my story, Bernita.

I agree with you about the importance of little things in a story.
A single sentence can sometimes be enough to invoke a strong sense of realism and familiarity to the reader.

Scott from Oregon said...

Nothing to say tonight but yes to all three of your last posts.

(borrowed computer, and all...)

Gotta run..

LadyBronco said...

For me, when I am reading something, if the author has written something so well I can see it in my head like I am watching a movie - that's when I know I've stumbled upon something truly wonderful.

And it doesn't matter the genre.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Charles.
Much can be conveyed with the small specifics.

You had me absolutely with that line, Jeff.

Thank you, Scott!
(Don't work too hard...)

"And it doesn't matter the genre."
Very good point, Lady B.