Or, why the smallest details count in fiction.
I wrote a book recently. Well, I say recently, it took a while in reality. It was self-published on Amazon a few months ago and it’s slowly but surely making a sale here and there, getting snapped up on free days like you wouldn’t believe and importantly, to me at least, making people laugh.
Laugh, in a good way that is. Not just pointing and laughing at me. The book is a comedy and it’s meant to make people laugh, so the fact it is suggests it’s doing exactly what I’d planned.
You Mean People are Actually Reading It?
It’s been a learning curve though; the physical, mental and emotional hard work that goes into a book, even a light hearted effort, is something that only other writers will fully understand. By the time it’s done and dusted and ready for publication you’re not only exhausted but (perhaps not all of us) you’re also suddenly seized with an almost paralysing self-doubt.
It’s just not good enough, you’re mad, nobody’s ever going to read this tripe. Worse still, if they do, they’ll hate it, hate you and think you’re an idiot. All these, and so many more, emotions flash through your mind with increasing and unwarranted frequency. In the end, you have to be brave, throw caution to the wind and press ‘publish’. After that a terrible silence falls.
However, after a few months (hopefully) the book is getting circulated, people are reading it and, rather worryingly, having opinions. These opinions, however scary, are important. Working out what does work in your book, or what doesn’t, is much easier when you listen to what your readers have to say. Oddly, in my case, it’s taught (or reminded me) of just how important small details can be.
But, But, That Bit’s Irrelevant….
The reception has been good and some really weird things have stood out; in one particular scene at the end of the book, when all the strands are coming together, some major action is developing and a lot of secrets revealed, one character is attempting to dunk a biscuit in his tea, largely unaware of the drama unfolding around him.
It’s a small detail that took only moments to write and was hardly ever edited at all; in the whole book it’s probably one of those moments that took the least effort and lost me no sleep. It’s almost a throw-away line and it could, without any great loss to the story, indeed be thrown away. Or so I thought.
What About My Lovely, Intricate, Well-Crafted Plot?
It was only when it became apparent that reader after reader was picking up on this one, small, comedy sideline, that I began to think about what on earth this apparently insignificant second or two of action did. And why it appeared to be doing it so successfully. I mean, it’s just a biscuit getting lost without trace, something that happens every day to some of us (OK, yes hand’s up, it happens most days to me).
So what on earth makes it stand out?
The Fine (and Familiar) Art of Dunking
Then it dawned on me, it’s simply the fact that nearly everyone can identify with that action.
We’ve all dunked hopefully, knowing there are risks to the process but on most occasions we wing it anyway. Nine times out of ten, once you’ve become experienced, the operation goes well.
That one time out of ten, that still happens even to an experienced dunker, is familiar to us all. It’s an immediate and very annoying problem. Half the biscuit has gone, lost to history and will never be retrieved.
In addition, it’s now disintegrating in the tea into a horrible, slimy, mushy substance that transforms the beverage into something undrinkable.Given that most of us dunk at the start of a cuppa, the chances are the whole drink is done for. This requires effort on our part, a return to the kitchen to dispose of the offending drink, make another and, for the brave at least, risk another attempt with the next biscuit.
In my story, I don’t go into quite so much detail as I have here about every dunker’s nightmare; in fact, using it as only a passing comment, using so few words is what seems to make it work. It conjures up a simple, quick and easy to picture moment and helps to drop the reader right into the action of the narrative.
Terribly Human, In So Many Ways
There also seems to be another aspect to why this incident, so minor in so many ways, is important in the story.
In the book, the character doing the dunking is an outsider, he’s new to human wiles and ways. He’s attempting very hard to fit in; meanwhile around him a massively chaotic story is unfolding and being wrapped back up again. Perhaps part of the success of this moment is in describing something terribly (in several senses of the word) human.
World War Three can be breaking out around us but we often remain wrapped up in our own little worlds, concerned about minor things; a stubbed toe, a chipped nail, a biscuit dunking disaster. On this level, the incident in the book is about the character, about developing him as real person (that may be the wrong word but you’ll have to buy the book to find out) and placing him firmly in the reader’s mind as a believable character with a life of their own.
Mundane Daily Details and Epic Tales
The devil, allegedly, is in the detail. And I think this is an important lesson to learn in fiction. I’ve read it, heard it and studied it on more than one occasion but “the curious incident of the biscuit lost in the tea” has really brought it home to me. It might have been a throwaway line or two, as far as I was concerned, but it played a huge part in bringing the book, the character and the world I was creating to life.
When it comes to any work of fiction, small, silly humorous tales or great big era defining novels, day-to-day details should never be overlooked.