The Devil is in the Detail


Posted by in August's Magazine

You may remember a certain politician called Jonathan Aitken and some business dealings he had with Saudi arms dealers, yes? He told a great many lies to hide the truth about what he was up to, including the whopper about a distressed teenage daughter and a hair raising chase across London with a car swap at a foreign embassy. The outrage the public felt at being duped by him was enormous. We hate liars like Mr Aitken and want horrible things to happen to such people. Liars make us feel cheated. Foolish. Ridiculed. However, one of the few times we don’t mind being lied to is when we know the lie is coming, such as in a novel. When we pick up a novel or collection of short stories, we know that what we are about to read is not true. Part of the unspoken deal between reader and writer is that the reader suspends disbelief for the duration of the story and happily believes in school boys called Harry who can fly and Hobbits and much much more. Jonathan Aitken Lie In fact, the more convincing the writer is at making us believe in the fictional, made-up world of his or her story, the more we admire the writer. Why? Because when it comes to fiction, we know writers are not literally attempting to deceive us, far from it: spinning yarns is the writer’s job and we human beings LOVE a good yarn. Storytellers have been entertaining us for thousands of years, even before that ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, wrote Poetics, that book about story writing. We don’t mind writers telling lies because when writers lie they do so on behalf of us and reveal a universal truth about the human condition. When liars like Jonathan Aitken lie, however, they lie on behalf of themselves, for greedy selfish reasons. So, I’ll say it again, in case I’ve not been clear, a good writer needs to be a good liar. And what makes a good liar? Well, as all good liars know, details are the stuff of persuasiveness. If I said to you, “I was mugged the other day,” you may or may not believe me. I’d have a better chance of convincing you of what happened if I added a few more details, as in: “Guess what happened to me on Sunday night? I was on Princes Street, at the bottom of The Mound. It was about eight; still light and so warm I didn’t need my cardy. Out of nowhere this old boy appeared. His face was puffy, red. His hair thin, greasy, and combed to the side. A tourist, I thought, in his checked nylon trousers and a short-sleeved blue polo shirt. Until I smelled the pee. Pungent. And saw the dark stain around his groin. Uh ho. He grabbed my arm. Jerked me into his body. ‘Your bag,’ he hissed, his yeasty breath crawling all over my face. All I could think about was the pee.” The second telling is more vivid, isn’t it? The trick with telling lies is to use details that allow the reader to see, hear, feel, smell and taste your story – although not necessarily all at the same time. You see, in our everyday life we engage with the world around us through our five senses. When we use details in our writing which appeal to one or more of these five senses we give our words an air of credibility. This helps the reader become emotionally engaged in our story. You could say details are like proofs. But we writers must be sure to use the right proofs. As the wonderful Robert Louis Stevenson once said: “In all narration, there is only one way to be clever. That is to be exact.” Miles Davis says Specific, concrete, definite, particular details are the lifeblood of fiction. In good writing there is no such thing as a horrible smell, or a loud noise, or a pretty dress, or a weird sensation or a bland morsel. Such details are too general and abstract. It is impossible for the reader to imagine what the writer is talking about. After all, a horrible smell could be the stench from rancid pork or the sickly-sweet perfume from an overripe pawpaw, or even the pungent smell of pee. The details a writer chooses is a partly learned process and partly organic and is linked to a writer’s style. It is a writer’s ‘style’, which makes his or her novel stand out from all the others. Style, however, is another article all on its own. One thing we know for sure about style is that it is not something that a writer should affect – no one likes affected writing – nor is it something a writer develops overnight. Jazz musician Mr Miles Davis was very correct when he said, “Sometimes you have to play a long time to play like yourself.” Twitter: @mwheelaghan Web: mariannewheelaghan.co.uk

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