Managing Details

The great difference between the better and the inferior writer, the skilled and the unskilled, the true marksman and the poor, the genius and the scrub, lies in the management of details.

The great difference between the better and the inferior writer, the skilled and the unskilled, the true marksman and the poor, the genius and the scrub, lies in the management of details. Almost any one can, with a good application, a degree of pluck and perseverance, some education, and a desire to write, make a reasonably good attempt in fiction; but it takes more than this to do more than this. Napoleon, the great master of military tactics and strategy, was said to have owed his brilliant achievements along these lines to his wonderful management of details. He never forgot a single point of advantage; he had every river, stream, mountain, hill, knoll, valley, and ravine down in his mental note book; and to his all-searching eye this book was always open.

To bring out only such matters of circumstance as are necessary to the complete understanding and finish of the story and to exclude all matters of circumstance that are not necessary requires considerable forethought and skill. It requires a conscience for the matter of detail that is quickened only by thorough understanding of the plan, the plan as a whole in all its bearings and significations, as well as a special understanding of the particular part of the plan that is under consideration.

For the convenience of discussion details may be divided into two kinds: Master Details and Subordinate Details. It is not that one has a greater effect in finish than the other that they are thus named, but because rather of the order of their appearance in the miscellany of writing, the one coming generally at the outset and the other later on in the composition. Master details, then, are usually found in the introduction, and include such matters as telling of names of persons and place, giving whatever is necessary by way of preface or prologue and such like; and subordinate details appear later in the full tide of anticipation or action and give suggestions as to character, human interest, local color, and atmosphere.

In either case the question to be determined in the selection or rejection of certain materials of composition is not what seems in a general way or estimate of most importance, but always what thing has most bearing on the theme. The naming of characters and the location of places has been set down as one of the fundamental points for beginners to remember to insert, "Have a Somewhere, a Somewhen, and a Someone," is hurled at him from every direction. Doubtless such an injunction is necessary for the ill-poised and poorly-adjusted mind that sees vaguely and writes more so; but to the thoughtful mind the instruction comes with a proviso. If the name of a person, place, or a date is not as important as some trait or characteristic, in the evolution of the story, drop the name, however unorthodox such a proceeding may seem. Live only for the theme that is in you, be true to it at whatever cost or fear of criticism or ridicule, and the public, the public that sees plainly through the omission and feels keenly the force of any saving of time, labor and patience on its part, will appreciate the position you have taken and reward you with loud acclaims.

In the general miscellany of writing, however, details have their separate requirements in the different divisions of the plan. The introduction states only such circumstances and details as are necessary to a proper understanding of the occurrences there registered. Generally, here they are merely enumerations of particulars. In the later parts of the story, on the contrary, they are quite different, they rise to the heights of personalized elements and show character as well as assist in the exploiting of the theme. In the latest parts they are fewest in number, much attention being given to the effect that they have already produced in the parts preceding. The climax rarely has much enumeration, little delineation, and scarcely any local color, although it may rise high in the scale of human interest; but it does this not by its own efforts alone, but by reason of the contiguity of its position to that of great action and feeling that have just preceded it. All that may be done through the proper management of details should have been pretty nearly complete before the climax, in order for the last effect to be strong.

After the preliminaries of time, place and person have been established, or not established as the case may require, we turn to a consideration of what constitutes some of the finer details, those shown in the latter parts of the story, such as local color, atmosphere, and human interest. These constitute the more difficult details, whose successful management calls for the utmost care.

Local color includes in a general scope all those forms of description that have for their primary quality an appeal to the sensibilities. In these are included description by effects, description by narration, description by suggestion or connotation, as well as the view that may be obtained of a locality by noting its effects upon the characters of the story. It is not really for the sake of describing a locality that local color is given, but for the sake of showing how that place or certain attributes of it can be impressed upon the consciousness of a beholder and transcribed by him in no small poetic sense for the production of the same effect upon the mind of the reader. These touches of local color are sometimes made to do a double duty. The scene of bright sunshine reflected upon a landscape or woodland or the special line of country that sweeps adown some craggy coast may produce a different effect upon the different minds that hold it in contemplation. Upon the sensibilities of him who gazes with the purity of a good conscience there will be borne all the sparkling delight of the scene, but upon him whose soul rests only behind darkened curtains of foul purpose the scene will rise in retribution and accusation. For the wayfarer, too, the local color will be different than for him who has always had an habitation there. The further purpose of local color that is found in giving all those delicate colorings of provincialism is so blent with atmosphere and human interest as to be well nigh inseparable from them. Notable writers who have made much of local color are Mrs. Humphrey Ward and Thomas Hardy. Their writings shine with full luster in this great quality. George Eliot, too, has much distinction in this respect.

To differentiate between local color and atmosphere is a delicate matter. Though seemingly of unlike characteristics they are so closely related in the primary aim that the whole superstructure of differentiation almost rests upon a shadow. The aim is, of course, to impress the spirit of the reader by a description in such a way as to make him have a feeling that really does not come from the contemplation of the place described so much as it does from the mind of him that describes. If one place more than another can make a distinction, it is in a description of the beautiful city of Venice. Here the bright coloring of sky and reflection in water, the unusual and highly artistic form of architecture may be embodied in local coloring, while the mysterious and subduing effect of those silent, velvet-shod feet of the street, where no rattling of traffic, no creaking cars roll by, but where all is silent, majestic, sublime in the process of daily and nightly activities, here there is produced the mysterious effect of atmosphere. We can say, then, that in those descriptions for results that are intended to appeal to man through the eye that local color is the one to make good the supersensuous effect, but where the ear is called into use for conditions to be so produced that the effect may be called that of atmosphere.

There is in the writings of Booth Tarkington a most pleasing arrangement for securing the effect of this kind. He makes you feel even in the sound of a laugh just how the situation lies. Poe, too, was a master of atmosphere. In the woeful turn of a single sound in the wind, in the bleakness of the hour of day or night, he makes you feel all that chill horror that the sound, the sightless sound alone, can possibly give. Poets have this power to a marked degree, as witness that remarkable line of Joaquin Miller penned after beholding the disastrous results from the San Francisco fire: "Such darkness as when Jesus died." The weird silence of those blackened streets, the absence of the throng that so lately had bustled busily there, is portrayed most graphically by a recurrence to the sense of awful loneliness and dreadful potentialities that followed the wiping out of the life of the Savior,

There is in this line from the poet much, too, that takes on the definite character of human interest. Who has not felt . that sense of loneliness after having all the scenes of life removed? To wander through ashes and fallen timbers and know that all that now lies silently helpless before you was once the strong arm of your support will bring to mind the cheerless condition of those wandering disciples of Him who had once been their whole life's interest, their comforter and support and to feel now as they did when compelled to go out into the empty, worthless world again without Him. Yet these men are removed by more than twenty centuries of time, are not associated either in customs or general habits of life in ways like ours, but on the hanging of a single line we are thrown back these ages and bound to them by ties of sympathy like those of living kindred.

Human interest, the most difficult, the most necessary qualification nowadays for the successful writer of fiction, has for its basis the super-sensuous appeal to both sight and sound. There must be called up to the mind a picture, vivid, realistic, portraying with almost instantaneous flash the situation; and at the same time there should be conveyed to the sensorium a certain amount of recollection as to sound or stillness. Who has not wakened in the night when the clock stopped more impressed by the absence than by the regularity of the ticking? The sudden cessation of sound then has the same effect as if there had been another and antagonistic noise produced.

All of these finer effects of local color, atmosphere, and human interest become much more perfect by practice. The ear for sound may be educated by learning to tune a stringed instrument. The constant examination in the mind of the comparative tones, the one given and the one required, will very soon bring up the sensibilities to a quick appreciation of the correct key. So it is with tone coloring in writing, the poor human soul that starts in for these graces in composition will find that he does more often get the wrong key than the1 right. He will struggle along without any appreciable gain until he has learned to compare, and compare continually, the impression that he wishes to produce with the one already registered in his own mind. He may be able, in time, to call up the impression as it once came to him impinged upon his sensibilities, but as a usual thing he would better for the most realistic effects have the object or some portion of it present for the comparison. This is why authors, and the best of them that have ever excelled in the fine art of writing, have, for local color, always gone to the place that they wished to describe, in order that they might see, feel, and record, not what lay before them in photographic view, but what was registered within their souls in regard to the impressions of their registering consciousness. It is a delicate, fleeting material with which they are dealing, more fragile than the plume of a butterfly's wing, a substance that is not a substance, even in a subjective consideration, and one that must be taken at once in order to get it in its fullness, its purity, and its sweetness.

To the master artist either in painting or music these effects are identical. They come of the highest cultivation of the highest brain cells of the anatomy, the place where spirit joins matter; yet they are susceptible of being made to reach the ear and heart of the most commonplace. They reach through the words that carry them and become more than words; they are the "Open Sesame" to worlds of splendor, worlds not made with hands, and they join all souls in harmony there who are gifted with the sense of appreciation.

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