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All the Small Things

(If you just got Blink 182 in your head, I'm sorry. Actually I'm not. Ha!)

It's all in the details. (Photo credit: Uri Baruchin)
 Somewhere in the course of our conversations behind the scenes, the YA Highway girls got to talking about details. But not just any details: the ones that, in some way or another, made a character or a story or a moment get so stuck in our brains that we haven't forgotten them, even days or weeks or years after finishing the books.

I could explain to you exactly what I mean, but I think examples would do the job better:

Kate Hart says:
One of my favorites is in How To Save A Life - the mom cuts her hair off and it makes the girl cry, which totally happened to me as a preteen-- we'd just moved, new school, Mom started new job, and the hair was like the final straw in too much change.
“When a hurricane damaged my father's house, my brother rushed over with a gas grill, three coolers of beer, and an enormous Fuck-It Bucket - a plastic pail filled with jawbreakers and bite-size candy bars. ("When shit brings you down, just say 'fuck it,' and eat yourself some motherfucking candy.")” from "You Can't Kill the Rooster" in Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
 Kody Keplinger:
Hazel records and watches every America's Next Top Model marathon, even if she's seen the episodes before, in TFIOS. I love this one, because we see Hazel as this kind of deep thinker, but this grounds her and makes her feel like a real teenager to me.
 In SOME GIRLS ARE. Regina is constantly popping antacids when she's stressed. It's actually connected to an eating disorder, but I thought this was an interesting manifestation. And it becomes very telling every time she takes an antacid (she carries them with her everywhere).
Amy Lukavics:
The way the older brother from Say Cheese and Die! mistook veal for chicken, and then mistook turnips for potatoes in the sequel.

The way Harold the walking scarecrow spread out bloody skins to dry in the sun, in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. 
Phoebe North:
I once saw the script guide to A Hard Day's Night, starring the Beatles, and there was a note that John Lennon never sits, he sprawls or drapes himself over chairs. That's stuck with me for years. 
Stephanie Kuehn:
I loved that the boy (Craig) in It's Kind of a Funny Story sits down to pee. Okay, see, it sounds weird to say I loved that. It was a poignant, telling detail about his character and about the nature of depression. 
And mine:
One of my faves is in The Raven Boys-- Gansey is always chewing mint leaves. 
They're details that make you feel like you know someone, or that you know a secret, private part of them, or that you know their darker parts. They're the details that make a story ring in your head like a bell, or creep up on your conscious mind while you're falling asleep, or keep resurfacing even when you've read a dozen books since then. Or they're those details that don't have a clear logical explanation-- why does it matter that Gansey chews mint leaves?-- but that are so specific and so unique that they make a character seem like a real person. Because real people do things like that, just because they like to, or just because.

Details are what build a world, what build a character. And when you're like me and the same descriptions come to mind over and over again, or you find it difficult to describe things with any specificity, details are where you can return to ground your story and your characters.

The best ones feel like little revelations about a character or a story-- John Lennon draping himself over chairs, or Craig sitting down when he pees, or Regina popping antacids. The best ones are not obvious or cliche, but unique enough to be memorable, and not so odd that they take you out of the story as you read.

I think the best way to start getting those revelatory details in your own writing is by noticing them, and not just in books or television shows or movies, but in the people around you. For example: I had a friend in high school who gave up swearing for lent and started snapping his wrist with a rubberband every time he slipped. My mom (and I!) can't help but scratch mosquito bites until they bleed. One of my high school teachers always gulped when she swallowed.

There are things we remember about people, and places, and moments, and we can train ourselves to see them or remember them. And I'm pretty sure that if we start to do that, we can find them in our writing, too.

How about you? What details from stories or movies or life do you have stuck in your head?
Veronica Roth

Veronica is the author of the NYT bestselling YA dystopian thriller series Divergent, published by Harper Collins/Katherine Tegen Books. She's also a graduate of Northwestern University, a Christian, and A Tall Person, among other things.

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9 comments:

  1. Great post! I love all those little details.

    On TV: Burn Notice's Michael Weston frequently eats yogurt. It's a detail that doesn't need to be there, but it's funny and makes you like him, especially when he or someone else makes a comment about him eating yogurt.

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  2. This is a fantastic post and a great reminder to look out for those details both in real life and in our characters. Thanks, Veronica!

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  3. Harry Potter is FULL of those kinds of details, BUT, probably my favorite is when "Dumbledore surveys Harry though his half-moon spectacles"

    :)

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  4. I know exactly what you mean. In Oceans 11, Brad Pitt's character is constantly eating. It's one of the biggest things I remember about the movie.

    Great post!

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    1. I loved that detail too! (I thought of it while writing this post, actually!)

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  5. I can't really think of any particular details that I've READ that stick out in my mind, but I like to drop little details in my own writing. One that has caught a lot of attention in my writing workshops came from a short story I wrote.

    "Hot oatmeal tastes like wallpaper paste if you cook it right. Don’t ask me how I know what wallpaper paste tastes like. No matter what you add to it, wallpaper paste won’t change its flavor. Not fruit, not milk and sugar, not even guilt and embarrassment. That didn’t stop me from adding all the guilt and embarrassment I could into my wallpaper oatmeal paste that morning."

    This followed by "Leave me alone, I'm trying to enjoy my guilt-flavored wallpaper paste."

    I guess the imagery really stuck with people. XD

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  6. Cather in FANGIRL, another Rainbow Rowell book, is perfectly socially awkward. I love reading about this, it's so rare to see and so wonderful.

    The only other place I've seen social awkwardness done well is WATAMOTE, a manga-based anime series currently on Crunchyroll. If you like anime I can't recommend this show enough. It's played for comedy sometimes, but it still remains the most accurate and painfully relatable portrayal of social awkwardness I've seen.

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  7. Oh drat, I commented on the wrong post. Sorry YA Highway!

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Item Reviewed: All the Small Things Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Veronica Roth