Oran’s critical review of Jim Murphy’s Christadora got me thinking about the type of accuracy that works in details in fiction.
In trying to place things in a specific sense of place and time, for example, he tells you things you don’t need: “Mateo parked his car 100 metres away” as opposed to “Mateo parked his car nearby”. If you wanted an example of accuracy and not specificity “Mateo parked his car a few streets away”. It’s a kind of detail I would naturally track which is why the specificity of 100 metres is weird. This might seem innocuous but when the book has these details I don’t need, I am pulled out of the story. And it happens quite a bit. Here is another example: POV character is coming home from work with pizza and she finds out her kid is in hospital because they were bitten by a dog. This is verbatim what she does:
“… put her pizzas down on a handsome, high-backed wooden bench in the lobby, pulled out her cell phone …”
This is exactly the kind of information I don’t want. Like I want to know what happened to the kid. She can put the pizzas down, sure, but with the detail she seems unpanicked, unhurried, wanting to gently place her delicious steaming pizzas on this handsome, high-backed wooden bench before at last pulling her mobile out and dialling her partner.
Murphy has a journalist’s background. He has a well-honed eye for accurate details, but what works in journalism isn’t what works in fiction.
The aim for details in fiction isn’t to be factual. It’s to be true to life.
Details should be chosen for particular interest, such as narrative relevance or significance to character. If a detail is noted in fiction it’s marked out as something with implications – which is why it’s distracting to specify the exact distance of the car, and why describing the bench in detail right there suggests the character isn’t that worried about her kid. The reader’s mind is being pointed in an irrelevant direction.
It might be factual for the car to be 100m away or the bench to be high-backed. But in the story, this use of detail isn’t true to life. Good description is active, it bounces off everything else. It’s not just there, it does something: implying importance, imbuing subtext, portraying character, reinforcing points of the setting or themes. An unnecessary or ham-fisted detail cuts against the grain of the scene, distracting readers.
As far as a realistic character is concerned, the car is ‘nearby’ and the pizzas are ‘thrown on a bench as she pulls out her phone, hands shaking’. Now, if Mateo were parking his car for a heist or assassination, having a specific distance planned might work. And if the character with the pizzas was supposed to be cold or even abusive, implying a sedate response to their kid being in hospital could be powerful, striking a disturbing note.
Does this specific detail matter? Would it change something if this were different? What does it imply? Does it fit the tone, the character, the scene? What will the reader want to know right now?