Greetings! Maureen Pratt here with my latest CAN blog post about the craft of writing. Today, I thought I'd steer clear of the "big picture" – that is, the major aspects of writing that we so often focus on in our work – plot and character arcs, basic personal attributes, action points. Instead, I thought I'd "sweat the small stuff" and talk about the importance of seeking, seeing and writing about the "fine print," those details that can truly make a huge difference between a piece that is okay from one that is, "Oh! Hey! [That really strikes home/makes this a truly memorable book/article/essay]"
Settling upon this topic for this particular blog came not from a grand list of topics for future months, but rather from reading the legal notices in the newspaper – truly, from a place of "fine print!" What stories there are within these seemingly boring recitations of legalese! Property seized, estates probated, court procedings begun – these and more were there and behind them, individuals and their lives. And, isn't that what writers write about?
How does this relate to our works-in-progress?
It occurred to me, as I was squinting to decipher the minute notices in my daily newpaper, that our work, mine and yours, can be even more interesting and unique if we, too, paid attention to the small print, the more minute details. Instead of lavishing our attention on our main characters, what if we developed more complete backstories for our secondary characters? Instead of focusing only on bold-faced headlines, the main points of a story, what if we spent more time on the connective tissue between them, giving our narratives greater depth, something special? For example, if hero and heroine meet, why not paint a bit of detail around them and give insight to their environment and how they live in it? The crash of broken crockery from the back of the coffeehouse, say, that jogs the heroine's memory about a past experience, or the way the hero observes the robust business at the same coffeehouse, which makes him think of his determination to own his own business one day soon.
Of a day, it is not only our main characters who must deal with crises, and not only the "big stuff" that is happening in our characters' worlds, fiction or non. When we ask (and answer) what our secondary characters might be struggling with, we can get away from mere "he said" and "she said" and perhaps draw better subplots. If our heroine's coworker is trying to adopt a baby, for example, and we're introduced to this in the first chapter, her journey can carry through and serve as something poignant for our heroine to relate to, as well.
Small details can carry a big punch when it comes to describing people, places, and things, and we can use all of our senses to (pardon the pun) sniff these out. The "background" noise of a passing siren can convey the grittiness of a city. The flash of green through the air can capture an illusive hummingbird and convey the beautiful outdoors. The waft of garlic and onions through an open window can say much about a character's cooking style, not to mention make the reader's mouth water!
When you start to look for the small stuff in a character, larger details can emerge. Callouses on the outside tips of someone's fingers can indicate he or she is a piano player. Callouses on the fingertip pads might signal a guitar player. A faint red mark across the upper part of the bridge of someone's nose can be a giveaway that the person wears glasses. Hopelessly wrinkled shirts can go along with someone's reluctance to get out their iron and ironing board. These and other "fine print" observations can help otherwise mundane descriptions sound fresh. The more specific and well-rounded we can make our descriptions, the better a fictional or non-fictional world we'll write.
When I conduct interviews, I'm always alert for the "fine print," the passing mention of something that turns out to be vitally important or exquisitely distinctive. Much like unearthing a glittering treasure trove, this is one of the most exciting and fun aspects of reporting and, if included in the finished work, can make an article or story all the more interesting to the reader, too.
When we're more aware of the fine print, we can write of a bigger world. And we can bring greater insight to even the most secondary of characters or settings…and, perhaps, discover more stories to tell as a result!
Joys and peace to you!