“The universal lay in the details.” This statement —differently phrased — exists in almost all writing advice. Gayle Forman’s bestselling, If I Stay (now a Hollywood movie) is an example of this writerly edict. For a short book (171 pages on the iPad Nook app), Forman expertly engages the reader using powerful, simple and visceral detail.
During the deathly car crash, Beethoven’s Cello Sonata no. 3 is on the radio. Not just cello music, not only classical music, not simply Beethoven, but a specific sonata for the cello, one that Mia is learning. Then:
You wouldn’t expect the radio to work afterward. But it does.
The car is eviscerated. The impact of a four-ton pickup truck going sixty miles an hour plowing straight into the passenger side had the force of an atom bomb. It tore off the doors, sent the front-side passenger seat through the driver’s-side window. It flipped the chassis, bouncing it across the road and ripped the engine apart as if it were no stronger than a spiderweb. It tossed wheels and hubcaps deep into the forest. It ignited bits of the gas tank, so that now tiny flames lap at the wet road.
And there was so much noise. A symphony of grinding, a chorus of popping, an aria of exploding, and finally, the sad clapping of hard metal cutting into soft trees. Then it went quiet, except for this: Beethoven’s Cello Sonata no. 3, still playing. (pg 13)
Even if the reader does not know Beethoven’s sonata, as I don’t, the aural specificity of a car crash, metal against metal, metal against pavement, metal against tree, the thick snowy day silence, and classical music like fog wisps whispering above the white ground, is evocative. Even if a reader has never seen a car crash or a crashed car, Forman’s metaphor, “ripped the engine apart as if it were no stronger than a spiderweb” is a specific image a reader can picture from personal memory. The more detailed the images, the easier for a reader to imagine the fictional world and locate themselves within it. And the more the reader is enshrouded in the story, the more relatable the characters’ perspectives. The reader perceives the fictionalized world through the narrator’s senses: descriptive specificity of sound, sight, touch, taste, and smell.
Forman’s clean choice of detail also limits the reader’s focus, in turn, heightening the image and its effect. By controlling the reader’s perspective and perception, the author can manipulate their emotional state. In the case above, the author does not describe the truck that cause the accident, nor the forest, nor the road. By focusing on the detail of the car and then even tighter into the sounds1, the author forces the reader to experience through senses what Mia is experiencing. The author is the microscope between the reader and the story. Blending the “reader’s senses”2 with the narrative protagonist’s senses, Forman binds the reader to the protagonist, the moment, and the story.
Choosing the right details is a difficult task at any authorial level. Perhaps, it is the most important burden. The good news is when it is done well, the writing conjures the moment’s intended emotion. The better news is that these writerly choices do not happen in the first drafts, or even the first few drafts. Honing and heightening images and details is part of the editing process, so don’t worry if they aren’t perfect…yet.
- Sound is especially poignant because the narrator is a musician, so sound would be forefront in her perspective. ↩
- A reader’s senses is nothing more than the authorial choice of what to put on the page. In this case, visual and aural. Note, Forman does not mention smells, touch, or taste in this section. ↩