Ever since I started taking three-mile walks with Kinsey (aka Pupzilla), I’ve tugged some old conference workshop CDs from mothballs and am re-listening to a lot of oldies but goodies. The agent and editor panel discussions are obsolete (but entertaining) since this industry changes on a dime, but the craft workshops are still spot on. I’d forgotten how good a lot of them are.
All my conference workshop CDs are from past Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold conferences. They’re awesome. I enjoy listening to the voices of old friends I haven’t seen for a while, and who I look forward to seeing again in the fall. But there are also some excellent workshops conducted by guest speakers, many of whom are award winning and best selling authors.
In 2004, the CG conference was fortunate to have professional journalist and mystery author Jonathan King as our keynote speaker. The man has a journalist’s eye for detail, and he taught two workshops during the conference that reflected his genius. Since I’m making revisions to Mystic Taxi, and one of the issues is including and deleting details that slow or detract from the story, I listened very carefully to Jon’s advice.
It’s vital for journalists to make every word count, so extraneous details and explanations are verboten in their work. As fiction writers, we can learn a lot from good journalism.
Jon read from a variety of examples where the details were precise and telling, using very few words. The emotions ran high in many of them. My favorite was from a piece a journalist wrote about the Oklahoma City Bombing:
After the explosion, people learned to write left handed. To tie just one shoe. They learned to endure pieces of glass embedded in their flesh. To smile with faces that made them want to cry. To cry with glass eyes. They learned in homes where children had played to stand the quiet. They learned to sleep with pills, to sleep alone.
Without explicit explanations about how some people lost their right hands in the blast, their faces disfigured by shrapnel, how they had lost children and loved ones in the tragedy, this description effectively tells readers all they need to know about this life-altering catastrophe. I want to write like that.
He gave another example from a piece he’d written himself, and again it was a journalistic work, about a murder suicide. Jon took the details provided in the police report to paint a picture of how an ordinary afternoon spent at Disneyworld had ended in two tragic deaths. Heartbreaking. A receipt found in the dead man’s pocket revealed that just a couple hours before he shot his wife and then himself, he’d bought them both ice cream at Disneyworld. This is such a telling detail. What does it say about the man’s frame of mind? The man who killed his wife and then himself was a cop, by the way.
I invite you to select an effective description from your WIP or finished manuscript that you feel is a good example of distinctive detail that tells more than it shows without actually explaining anything. It’s a challenge.