When we perceive our world in our day-to-day lives, our brains are constantly doing something (many things, actually!) that we are totally unaware of. At any given point in time, our five senses are being bombarded by information from all around us. If we were to try to tune in to all of these hectic signals every day, our brains would explode.
Selective filtering is when the unconscious part of our brains take in all of these signals, and filter them like sand through a sieve. We are only consciously aware of the details that we want to be aware of — or that we want to focus on. For example, right now, as you stare at your screen, you’re only concentrating on the black words on this page; you’re not paying attention to the hum of your computer, the whir of your fan, or the beeping of the garbage truck outside your window. You’re focused, and your brain is helping you pick the details that matter.
That brings us to today’s topic: picking the details that matter. Interestingly enough, writers employ the usage of selective filtering, except to a much more extreme degree. Good writers consciously manipulate the diction, phrases, sentence structure, and details that they include to present a certain perception of a character or to create a certain atmosphere in a specific type of setting. Good writers manipulate the details that we read.
Why? you ask.
Much like our day-to-day lives, it is impossible for writers to write down every single detail of every single character or setting or scene that they wish to portray; and on the flip side, it is impossibly boring for a reader to wade through all of that detail. Just like our brains, we only want to focus on the ones that matter — the ones that will give us hints of whether this character is good and moral, or whether he’s a scumbag. Today, I’m going to go through a few examples and have you try a few exercises to become an expert at Picking The Details That Matter.
Step 1: Word Choice and Connotations. This is the building block of writing. Every word has a certain connotation associated with it, and good writers will successfully pick and choose words with connotations that best fit what they are trying to do. If you’re trying to create a sinister scene, use words with creepy connotations. If you’re trying to describe a heroine, use words with positive connotations.
Let’s try this: I’m going to give a Neutral description (a description using words with as little connotation as possible), and then have you try to come up with certain types of descriptions by replacing certain words with more effective diction. I’ll then give examples, and analyze why those examples might work.
Neutral description: The house was on a hill, its white walls lit by sunlight.
Description 1 — Sad: The small house hunched atop a lonely hill, its faded white walls cast in the cold rays of a setting sun.
Description 2 — Happy: The house perched cheerfully atop the hill, its white walls sparkling under the warm radiance of the midday sun.
Compare and contrast the two. Do you think they create different types of moods? If so, how? Look carefully at the differences in the words I used. How does each word convey a different mood, and what types of connotations are associated with each word? Now, try to create some different descriptions/moods of your own through effective use of diction and connotations.
Step 2: It’s All About Perspective
Word choice and connotations were the building blocks of our tower. Now, we’re going to zoom out and look at the infrastructure.
When we write, we are constantly writing through the perception of another character. We are in his/her mind. We are evaluating the world through our Main Character’s (MC’s) perspective. And that means we need to really understand our character, get into his/her head, and sift through what kinds of thoughts might be running through his/her head, what kinds of details his/her brain might be sifting out. We write the world based on how our characters view it.
Let’s try this exercise. Pick an object. Any object, near you. Mine is going to be a vase of roses. Now, think of how you view that object. To continue my example with the roses, let’s get into my head. I am a twenty-four year old Manhattanite living in a high-rise, one-bedroom apartment, working long hours in a finance job. That vase of roses represents home and comfort when I step back into my apartment. It represents my happy relationship with my boyfriend, and the fullness of my life. It sits brightly atop my mahogany glass-top dining table, overlooking the bustling streets below me and the tall skyscraper across from my window.
Now, let’s pretend I just broke up with my boyfriend. The next night, I return home to my dark apartment, flick on the lights, and there it sits, a splash of crimson that is annoyingly bright beneath the the dull glow of my lights. It perches atop my glass-top table, an illusion of the happiness I once had. A false beacon against the insurmountable loneliness of an empty New York apartment. Anger and sadness fill me as I stare at the flowers, wondering how they could have represented my happiness in life just less than twenty-four hours ago. I look out my window at the city that never sleeps, and I wonder where I feel lonelier: in a crowded street of strangers, or alone in my empty apartment.
Did the perspectives change? I hope so. The tip is to get into your character’s head, and write how they would perceive even the simplest of objects. You won’t need to write a paragraph of prose about every single thing the character sees; most of the time, it’s about using effective diction (read: Step 1!) to create the appropriate connotation to accurately construe what our characters might see.
Step 3: Writing The Details That Matter
I know we just spent one section talking about getting into your MC’s head and writing from his perspective. Now, let’s take it to the next level. Good writers will create the perception that we are viewing the world from the MC’s eyes, while really, they are inserting details that shape our perception of a certain character or scene or situation through the perception of the MC.
Confused yet? (It’s okay, I am, too.)
You’ve learned to view things from the perspective of your MC. Now, you need to rise above it, determine how you want to portray a character/setting/situation, pick out the details that matter, and dive back into your MC’s head to write it out. For example, let’s pretend your MC is an ordinary teenage schoolgirl gone to visit her rich uncle’s house in the suburbs. She admires Rich Uncle, yet is also intimidated by him. We’re going to write a scene about her arriving at his mansion. When we write this scene, let’s keep in mind the three goals we need to accomplish:
- We need to show MC’s perception of the world (as an ordinary teenage schoolgirl);
- We need to show MC’s perception of Rich Uncle;
- We need to give the reader an impression of Rich Uncle (one that is in line with MC’s perception, yet also hint at some things outside of MC’s knowledge that we want the reader to know).
And, at the same time, let’s keep in mind the three different components we need to weave into the scene:
- What MC knows/sees/senses/perceives;
- The way MC perceives Rich Uncle;
- Things outside of MC’s knowledge/perception of Rich Uncle.
Let’s set the scene — MC walks in, and observes Rich Uncle’s foyer.
The foyer dripped with luxury, from the white-veined marble floors to the rich mahogany wood of the furniture. Bookcases lined the wall, stiff-backed and lined with heavy leather-bound books exuding importance. Claire gingerly set a foot on the red velvet carpet that stretched through a hallway of paintings: imposing portraits of powerful ancestors she’d never known, frowning down at her beneath gold-rimmed spectacles. Claire wrapped her arms around her plain gray hoodie, careful not to touch any of the collectors’ items that lined the walls — wooden carvings of indigenous figures, long curved bones that looked like elephant tusks, and the full pelt of a white tiger triumphantly pinned to the wall.
Let’s take a look at the three components we were supposed to weave into the scene:
- What MC knows/sees/senses/perceives: The general sense that Claire gets from this mansion is that it’s old and opulent — and she doesn’t even know how luxurious it is, sometimes. Note how I slipped in the description of her clothes, a “plain gray hoodie,” contrasted to the incredible wealth around her. At one point, she doesn’t even know that she’s looking at ivory: “long curved bones that looked like elephant tusks”… Additionally, there are all these relatives that she doesn’t know either: “imposing portraits of powerful ancestors she’d never known, frowning down at her beneath gold-rimmed spectacles.” We get the sense that Claire comes from a less well-off background. Contrast this with how a wealthy schoolgirl might perceive this Rich Uncle’s foyer (she might, for example, know her relatives, and pick up on the subtler details of her uncle’s display of finesse), and there, you have perspective.
- The way MC perceives Rich Uncle: From the language I used, we can see that Claire is slightly intimidated by her uncle — or, at least, by his house (from which we can infer she is also intimidated by him). The bookcases are described as “stiff-backed,” with books that “exude importance”. Claire “gingerly” steps onto the carpet, and “wraps her arms around her plain gray hoodie” as she looks up at the portraits of her “powerful ancestors,” “frowning down at her beneath gold-rimmed spectacles.” From the word choice, we can tell that Claire’s very careful, and her perception of her ancestors, the bookcases, and the decor tells us that she feels less worthy of respect.
- Things outside of MC’s knowledge/perception of Rich Uncle: This is mostly seen in the last sentence, when she skims over her uncle’s collector’s items: “wooden carvings of indigenous figures, long curved bones that looked like elephant tusks, and the full pelt of a white tiger triumphantly pinned to the wall.” Claire might not be fully aware here, but the reader should have picked up that these are all prohibited items (indigenous carvings, ivory, and animal pelts). This is an example of something that is outside of the MC’s scope of knowledge, yet that we can successfully hint at for the reader to pick up on. It’s a very subtle skill, and requires some delicacy in picking the details and the language and placing them just right.
Another note on room descriptions: notice how I didn’t outline every single detail and piece of furniture that was in there. I didn’t pan around and say: “A desk was in the northwest corner, with a vase of flowers on top. To the right of it was a row of bookcases. A half-wall separated the foyer from the hallway farther down” … etc. This is about picking the details that matter. When we write, we don’t want an exact floorplan of the room, down to the very inch of the bathroom floor tiles. We want a single, well-chosen picture or frame that shows us how we want to portray the room — and, most importantly, gives us an overall impression of the room. Is it brightly-lit with sunlight and huge glass windows and chic, styled furniture? Or is it furnished with green carpet and dark mahogany furniture, with heavy velvet curtains and gold tassels? Perspective and picking the details that matter will help us paint this impression for our readers.
So, to wrap up. Today, we’ve learned about how every single word you use must be a carefully-chosen gem that is well-placed in a certain sentence structure to give a certain connotation about a certain meaning you wish to convey. We’ve used those building blocks to get into our character’s head and create perspective. And, by throwing it all together (the most difficult part!), keeping in mind the three types of goals we want to achieve in every scene through manipulation of words and character perception, we’ve learned to effectively write the details that matter.