Early in our marriage, David and I went to dinner at some friends’ house, and our hostess told a story. I think it was about a dog, but I honestly don’t remember. What I do remember is this very nice woman’s torturous way of telling it, and how we strained to remain patient as she got distracted, out loud, by one irrelevant detail after another. At one point our friend interrupted herself in mid-sentence, screwed her eyebrows in distress, and asked, “Or was it a Thursday?”
That’s what we remember.
“Or was it a Thursday?” has become one our marriage’s most enduring memes, shorthand for, “Get to the point!”
Usually, it’s David saying it to me. I’d like to think that’s because I’m usually the one talking. To be honest, though, I do have a way of thinking aloud and of getting overly interested in insignificant specifics. I hope I don’t do that too much when I’m talking to someone other than David, who vowed to stay with me through richer and poorer storytelling. And I really hope I don’t overdo irrelevant details on the page.
The beauty of first and second and nth drafts is that you can start out filling in as many details as you want, and then go back and remove the ones that don’t matter. Filling in the details helps me immerse myself in the world I’m creating. And while I might plan out and my story’s general shape and overall meaning in advance, the details often offer unexpected keys to how it all fits together.
For example: Early in the process of writing my novel Little Grandma’s Mirror, I knew an important scene would be a shiva meal. I put my characters in the dining room, and then started looking around in my mind’s eye and describing details. I noticed the windows and the overhead light fixture, the art on the wall, the spread of bagels and smoked fish, the soda and wine set out on the sideboard, and the small stash of hard liquor locked away inside it. It wasn’t until I got to that locked cabinet that I realized one of my characters was going to break into the booze, and bad things would ensue.
What kind of bad things? And what was it about my character that would make her unlock that forbidden cabinet? These were important questions. Answering them got me over a huge hurdle in the hard work of shaping my story. By my nth draft, the windows and the overhead light fixture and the art on the wall were long gone. The spread on the table remained, and provided a foil for much of the scene’s action. As for that locked-up stash of liquor, it not produced the scene’s climax, but also became a telling motif that recurred throughout the rest of the book.
Whether the event our hostess was describing occurred on a Tuesday or a Thursday may have been important. But she should have figured that out in an earlier draft, and then started talking. On the other hand, if she had, I’m sure David and I would have forgotten the whole event a long time ago.
Tags: Writing advice