Sunday, October 28, 2007

aaaaaaaaand...... ACTION! Final Take

And glad I am to see the back of this topic, too!

Today's final action-showing technique: Poetic Detail

Like Break It Down, this method of showing action is heavily grounded in our brains' chemistry. In moments of great stress (or great pleasure - our brains don't understand the difference), adrenalin floods our bodies and does whacky things to a little brain bit called the amygdala. That's the bit that controls how memories are written. Hence, the way I don't know what shirt I had on a couple days ago, but I *do* remember my first kiss, my first fight and exactly what I was doing the morning of September 11, 2001.

Thing is, the adrenalized brain is a quirky thing. Emotional memory is powerful and vivid, but also prone to pick out the oddest details.

This is where Poetic Detail comes in.

My first kiss was in a K-Mart parking lot. A drunk teen I barely knew wobbled up to me, said "You're cute" and kissed me. I was too stunned to do much more than stand there. Not exactly the stuff of movies, I know. Looking back, she was the first of too many bad girls.

But when I remember that moment, I feel the slap of summer sun on my skin and smell the hot asphalt. I see the movement of her hips and her flat bare belly. Her fingers were cool and slick on the skin above my heart. When she leaned in close, her hair smelled of strawberry shampoo, her skin of liquor sweat. The kiss tasted of lip gloss and cigarettes.

Now if I was to tell this event with Break It Down, I'd be shaving that moment into smaller and smaller increments, exploring each sense impression, each motion, whatever told the story best. But to use Poetic Detail, I'd pick *one*, or at most two, of those sense impressions and explore it at length.

He watched her approach. She was unsteady in her steps, thick cork heels sticking in the half-melted asphalt.

"You're cute," she said.

Her tongue flickered against his lips. Her teeth were small and sharp. She wrapped him in the smells of liquor and sweat and hot tar.

I really liked the 'slap of sunlight' bit, but instead I went with the asphalt. I could just as easily have gone with the sun on skin and stayed with the other touches on skin (her fingers on my chest, her lips), and on another day, I might have. Now, asphalt has nothing to do with the kiss. It's just one weird detail that my adrenalized brain fixed on and rendered in hyper-clarity.

Two things about that passage: I only give myself twenty minutes to post, so the writing is sometimes rushed. More important, I was trying to show how the brain picks detail from a real event. Writing fiction, that telling detail can come from any part of the imagination.

One of my favorite writers to use this technique is James Lee Burke. He has a beautiful way of choosing just the right image to impart moments of violence and terror with a sense of loss and redemption and the soul's flight from a world of beauty and pain.

Official Daily Wordcount-o-Meter:

12,678 words but I don't know what day it is!


RK Sterling said...

Steve, I don't know what day it is, either! LOL

Ok, I just did a quick check. I started Friday, October 19. Today is the 28th so depending on how you count it, we're on day 9 or 10, and I'm nowhere near where I wanted to be. (Real life job interrupted the process.)

However, I just wrote several more great pages - unfortunately, I was also alseep when I did it. Does dream writing count?

You're doing great, Steve. Hang in there. I'm ashamed that I've fallen behind. I feel like I'm letting you guys down. Time for me to put the petal back to the metal too.

RK Sterling said...

PS: great posts on action

Charles Gramlich said...

Another great post on the telling detail. Burke is definetely a master at it. I consider it a major key to writing.

Shauna Roberts said...

This series on showing action was excellent and I learned a lot. Thanks for posting it.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

One of my favorite Burke lines is when he describes a sky that looked like torn plums. When I read your bit on recalling everything about that first kiss, it made me think of something Charles said about my Don't Fear The Reaper memory. Iceberg memories. I think I might post a few more, the ones that I can use all my senses to access. Nice post, mate.

Steve Malley said...

Charles, if I knew how, I'd do a post on how to choose the right telling detail. It is *so* important!

And I'm glad y'all liked these posts. They weren't easy for me...


Unknown said...

Great posts :-)

SzélsőFa said...

I liked this post. The way the writer selects among his/her memories that are attached to a certain moment are important.

I am unsure whether choosing the feeling of the sun would have been inferior or not. I think it's not the point.
I think it's about balancing.

Lana Gramlich said...

I'm with Kate, kinda--does dream writing count? Unfortunately, outside of my regular journal, that's really the only "writing" I do. It's currently at 148,072 words--a real epic!

Lana Gramlich said... dream journal, that is!

Susan Miller said...

It's lovely to come here and get some lessons, Steve.

As always, I am amazed by your diligence with the writing.