The Value of Touching Details

Image: grid of mugshots
Photo credit: angus mcdiarmid on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Submit your first page for critique.

First Page

Early September

Phoebe is looking through a one-way mirror at a row of seven men lined up against a white wall marked with ruler-like black lines and numbers too faded to read, especially if you are blind as a bat. Behind her is another row of men, all police officers. Well, actually, there is one woman among this blue uniformed group. Unlike the rest, who stand, she sits to Phoebe’s left on a molded plastic chair with a crack along the front. It squeals softly whenever the policewoman shifts her weight, as now when she leans forward, settles elbows on knees, chin between her fists. Phoebe looks over and the two lock eyes. “Not at me, darlin’” the policewoman says. She nods toward the big mirror “At them.”

Everyone is waiting for Phoebe to react in some way, just as they were when they had her look through dozens of photos, six at a time. The seven men behind the glass, a few standing with their feet apart and hands clasped in front of their groins, cannot see Phoebe. She knows this. Even so. Even so.

She stares as instructed but doesn’t focus, doesn’t even try to focus. Ten minutes. Long enough. She drops her head, looks down at the floor and over at the policewoman’s feet. She’s wearing black leather shoes with fat laces and thick soles. A wad of pink gum attached to the left has attracted grimy bits—a tiny stone, strands of hair, a piece of grass or something else green and living—and it’s a good inch or so thicker than the right sole. Evidence. The woman must be lopsided—need this accommodation to keep from limping, to camouflage some embarrassing infirmity. For some reason this, of all things, makes Phoebe want to cry.

* * *

Phoebe had only swum 33 of her usual 52 back-and-forth’s that day. Out to the enormous cloud-shaped rock, one; back to the weather-beaten cement gnome, two. She’d been doing the breaststroke—head down for the glide, then up for a breath. Taking a breath: that’s when she caught sight of him, standing by the gnome at the water’s edge.

First-Page Critique

Not long ago on a friend’s recommendation I read a novel; or I half read it, not having been compelled to finish. When the friend (perturbed) asked me why, I answered, “I didn’t believe it.” This answer raised my friend’s eyebrows—as it has raised the eyebrows of many students of mine to whom I’ve suggested that a work of fiction should be credible.

“But it’s fiction!” they protest. “It doesn’t need to be believable!”

I disagree. The whole point of fiction, if you ask me and as I tell them, is to make believers out of us, to convince us that a world that’s mostly if not completely invented is real enough to invest in emotionally. Whether the world resembles the one that most of us inhabit daily, or it exists in another dimension, in another solar system, in an alternative universe, it must be rendered convincingly such that as readers we suspend our disbelief.

How do we writers get our readers to not doubt the worlds that we create for them? One way is through the use of details, and especially of what I call touching details.

A touching detail is one that, though it may seem arbitrary or trivial, supplies a note of authenticity. In this sense touching details are paradoxical: the less substantial they are, or seem to be, the better they tend to work. But rather than try to explain to you what a touching detail is, let me show you some examples. This first page holds a few.

The scene: a police line-up. Surrounded by uniformed officers, a woman—Phoebe—stares through the one-way mirror at “a row of seven men” lined up against a calibrated wall. She has either been the victim of or witnessed a crime and has been summoned to identify the perpetrator. The scene raises all the right questions: What crime did Phoebe witness or endure? Will the criminal be caught? Why does she seem so detached? However functional, the scene is also familiar. While few of us have experienced a police line-up first-hand, most of us have experienced dozens in books, movies, and TV shows. Since it’s so familiar, any author who writes such a scene runs a risk of cliché.

This is where touching details come in, for among the best ways to disarm a cliché is through their use. Here, for instance, within the first paragraph, just when a jaundiced reader might begin to question the authenticity of this police line-up, our attention is drawn to the “molded plastic chair with a crack along the front” in which the policewoman to Phoebe’s left sits. Does it really matter what sort of chair that woman sits on, or whether or not it’s cracked? Inasmuch as those minor details convince us that both the chair, its occupant, and the scene that contain them are real, it does. Those details exist for one reason: to disarm us, to make us question any doubts we might have as to the scene’s authenticity. That’s their only purpose, but it’s a noble one. Absent such touching details, this scene would join the endless parade of generic police line-ups, each of which resembles its brethren so closely they might as well be the same scene.

The second paragraph of this first page furnishes us with another touching detail, how some men in the line-up “[stand] with their feet apart and hands clasped in front of their groins”. A detail with symbolic significance? Maybe, depending on the nature of the crime. Symbolic or not, those clasped hands qualify as a touching detail. In the third paragraph we get the policewoman’s black leather shoes “with fat laces and thick soles.” If those soles and laces aren’t sufficient in themselves to disarm us, the author goes on to describe “[a] wad of pink gum attached to the left [shoe, one that] has attracted grimy bits—a tiny stone, strands of hair, a piece of grass or something else green and living.” So precisely is that shoe described, with touching detail added to touching detail, can we possibly doubt that the owner of said shoe is real, let alone the shoe itself?

Looked at this way through a microscope, such touching details may seem exotic; in fact they’re to be found in nearly every paragraph of good fiction, and other sorts of writing, too. But while most writers use them, some have a particular gift for the touching detail. One who comes instantly to mind is Emmanuel Bove (1898–1945), a Parisian son of Jewish immigrants born into extreme poverty. His first novel, Mes Amis (translated as My Friends), consists of little more than a catalogue of touching details. It opens:

When I wake up, my mouth is open. My teeth are furry: it would be better to brush them in the evening, but I am never brave enough. Tears have dried at the corners of my eyes. My shoulders do not hurt any more. Some stiff hair covers my forehead. I spread my fingers and push it back. It is no good: like the pages of a new book it springs up and tumbles over my eyes again. … When I bow my head, I can feel that my beard has grown: it pricks my neck.

Another champion of the touching detail is the Italo-German author Natalia Ginzburg (1916–1991). Her most famous novel, È Stato Cosi (translated as The Dry Heart), is a first-person account of mariticide that holds this first-page passage:

He had asked me to give him something hot in a thermos bottle to take with him on his trip. I went into the kitchen, made some tea, put milk and sugar in it, screwed the top on tight, and went back into his study. It was then that he showed me the sketch, and I took the revolver out of his desk drawer and shot him between the eyes.

Note how the screwing tight of the thermos top—an insignificant detail—is given as much (or as little) importance as the act of murder. By giving them equal weight, by treating touching details as matters of great or obvious significance, we endow them with an authority that draws our attention to them and away from the clichés that would otherwise rush in to fill the vacuums left by their absence. In an ideal world, every page would hold at least three.

Is it just a matter, then, of peppering our stories with any old trivial details? Alas, no. They have to be the right touching details, the perfect details, used judiciously, like cilantro or certain spices, lest they wear out their welcome. How do we know if our details are right, let alone perfect? We don’t—or we do, but only by an instinct peculiar to gifted writers.

Your First Page SelginAs D. H. Lawrence put it:

We have to choose between the quick and the dead. The quick is God-flame, in everything. And the dead is dead. In the room where I write, there is a little table that is dead: it doesn’t even weakly exist. And there is a ridiculous little iron stove, which for some unknown reason is quick. And there is an iron wardrobe trunk, which for some still more mysterious reason is quick. And there are several books, whose mere corpus is dead, utterly dead and non-existent. And there is a sleeping cat, very quick. And a glass lamp, alas, is dead. … What makes the difference? Quien sabe! But difference there is. And I know it.

Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.) Here’s how to submit your first page for critique.

Note: The publisher of Your First Page is offering free shipping if you order the book directly from their site. Use code YFPfreeship.

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