Sunday, December 28, 2008

A moment with Jack Hart: Meaningful detail

Anyone who has been to a writing seminar of any kind has probably heard someone advise writers to avoid the two sins of details -- using them for their own sake, just because they're in your notebook; or not using them at all.

I just read a passage in Jack Hart's book about that second sin that hit me right between the eyes. A lot of writers keep their distance from telling details -- to the detriment of their stories -- and it might not be your fault. And if you can unlearn something all of us have been taught, you can improve your writing.

Here is the bolt from Hart's book: "Our impulse is to observe specifics, reach conclusions, and report the conclusions. ... You're doing exactly what you've been trained to do. Modern education is all about inductive reasoning -- learning how to generalize from specifics."

Nothing's wrong with that, Hart says. But that's not what you should be doing if you want to tell someone a story.

Here's what I think: We're trained as journalists to dig out information and report it. We're almost hard-wired to conduct interviews, ask questions, and report -- in graf-direct quote-graf-direct quote format -- what we found out. So in many cases, when we see behavior or hear dialogue or watch a scene unfold, we are working so hard to figure out how to connect it to a larger meaning that we miss the fact that what we're watching or seeing or hearing is itself what we need to report.

That goes for a hard-news story just as much as for a true narrative. Our training, embedded somewhere deep in our heads, tells us to write, "'I will not vote for that,' the councilman said angrily," when we should write, "The councilman slammed his fist on the table and knocked his pen to the floor. 'I will note vote for that!' he shouted."

Our skill at including context, and at connecting that behavior or dialogue to the larger meaning of the the story, is crucial. But don't deaden your writing by figuring out what the scene or the behavior means, and then blowing off the crucial details to report only that the team celebrated joyously at midfield. Tell me that the offensive tackle was crying as he and the coach hugged for what seemed like a minute as the other players shouted and held their helmets aloft.

Again: You have to unlearn some of what you've learned, or at least teach yourself to think differently, to write like this effectively. You have to believe in the power of the right detail. You have to resist the urge to dilute telling details by assigning them broader descriptions -- and leaving the detail itself out. You also have to resist the compulsion of journalists to label everything with a descriptive tag.

A correspondent recently covered the Christmas tree giveaway at Helping Hands. He called me and said he was frustrated with his piece. For one thing, he said, he couldn't figure out how to describe the people who showed up to get trees without, he felt, being condescending toward them by calling them "needy" or some similar catch-all phrase.

I told him to forget trying to wrap them all up with a word. You don't need to do it; it doesn't add anything to the story. He read me a line in the story that said something like, "Some were out of a job, some were working but struggling to get by, some were homeless." That's all you need, I said. You've just used specifics of what you found out instead of a one-size-fits-all descriptor.

Although that's not the most stirring detail in the world, it shows that as a writer, you have to be conscious of what your choices are, and savvy enough to make the right ones.

From Hart: Before a reader can get to the same place you are, "they need to see what you saw, hear what you heard, and smell what you smelled. You must share your experience, not the conclusion you drew from it."

He quotes Hemingway: "Find what gave you the emotion. Then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it, too, and have the same feeling that you had."