I’ve become aware recently of a writing technique I’ve developed over the last couple of years. Its genesis was probably in my lessons with Sonia Orchard, who could always be counted on to say, “This is very general. I want a specific detail.” (As well as “What does this mean?” and “I don’t understand this at all.”)
Her constant search for more detail made sense to me when she put it like this: When you remember high school you don’t remember this general thing that comprises all your experiences. You remember specific things, and High School is attached to those things.
That made a lot of sense to me, so I started writing More Detail.
I started using sensory details from a character’s life to describe the current moment. For example, when my hero is suffering a panic attack, what he thinks is:
It wasn’t the squeezing, suffocating pain he had suffered before. It darted and flickered at his muscles, threatening at every moment to crash through him. He thought of the waves he had watched as a boy at Stonehaven. The stones had ground and shifted beneath his feet on the beach, their mottled grey an off-kilter reflection of the sky. He remembered the sea, huge and steely, muscling its way up, against the pull of gravity. Crashing back onto itself, pounding the foam knit across its surface.
The duchess had been wearing a pale pink coat and bonnet over a darker pink dress with small panniers. He remembered how her round, placid face had pinched, her lips unsure as she told Nanny not to let him so close to the water.
If he let the pain descend, it would kill him.
I think this was the passage where I first became aware of what I was doing. It’s not backstory – his memory isn’t moving the narrative along in a plot sense. It’s hard to articulate, but I think it’s this:
Humans learn to interpret their sense-experience as they grow up and gain points of reference. They (we) create a personal paradigm through which we understand everything else that happens to us.
By using snippets of memory from the character’s learning period (and the example I’ve given is quite a long one, it can just be a quick association), the fictional world becomes self-referential and immediately feels more real. Suddenly the part of the character’s life that we’re watching is not all that exists – we’re also made aware of everything that has made them, and of the complex and entirely subjective way they process the world.
This isn’t a technique I invented – I’m pretty sure it’s just another way of looking at the iceberg theory – but thinking about it from this angle works for me.