As a child, I was always entranced by complexity. Detailed images had the ability to capture my imagination, for hours on end. I can remember staring at the intricate blue patterns offset against the bone white China of my favorite restaurant as my meal grew cold. I would trace the scroll work on a dollar bill, and puzzle over the strange Latin phrases it carried for me. The richness and texture of these designs sunk their hooks deep into my imagination. Something about having a lot of information streaming at my brain was rewarding to me, and having to pick apart the details and see the patterns was like a puzzle in reverse for my young mind.
What I had stumbled upon was the human mind’s predilection for details, minutiae, in short, data. The pleasure I derived from looking at complex images, and decoding them, was really the pleasure of constructing a narrative to the details of the image. Our brains seem naturally wired to first, want large amounts of data and details, and second, to construct some type of narrative framework to organize those details. For the most part, we humans are planners. We prefer more information to less, because planning has long constituted a major element of survival for us. The individuals who were best able to plan, were best able to adapt, and in a harsh environment, adaption is key. Of course, most changes, are unpredictable, and we will get to that point later, but the fact remains that human beings like information, be it visual cues, like in the paintings and designs I loved as a youth, or weather reports and stock prices.
Think about this. When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? For most of us, it’s shutting off the alarm, which is often on our phones now. If you already have your phone, in hand, you will probably at least be tempted to check your texts, or facebook, or the weather. If you don’t do it then, you will almost certainly do it when you turn on your laptop in the cold morning light. Even before the digital age, we consumed information, first, even before we consumed food or other necessities. Growing up in the Northeast, I spent many winter mornings bathed in the soft glow of my old, titanic Mitsubishi tube television. It towered over me as I sat there, like a religious supplicant, waiting for its divine judgment. Two hour delay, or wait, wait CLOSED, victory! During those tense minutes watching the list of schools in my area scroll by along the bottom of the talking heads, I never felt hungry, or thirsty, or even tired in the cold dawn on all those winter mornings. I needed one thing, and one thing only. Details. I needed data, information, about how my day was going to play out. I needed to know. And I had discovered one of the strongest, and potentially most dangerous of human desires.
Details were important to me then, not because of the raw information itself, but because of the plan, the narrative, I was able to construct for myself because of them. I could plan out my sledding adventures now, and start calling friends. Our minds want details and information in order to help us build a more certain, predictable world, a world we can make sense out of. A narrative world. For in my adolescent snowday scheming, I was really writing stories of the near future. I envisioned them in my mind, and the divine blessing of the T.V. gave me the information to make them possible.
For details, to a large extent, constitute the fabric, the texture, of our lives. The little anecdotes we tell, the nervous ticks we have, or the tells when we lie, they all seem to combine together to make us who we are. Great writers are able to capture the world, even a fictional world, in all its details, and bring the reader to that world through those details. What makes a series like A Song of Ice and Fire or The Lord of the Rings, so compelling, is the richness and fullness of the worlds they create for us. We have enough data and details to make predictions about the worlds the characters move through. We can reliably and realistically say “A Gondorian would never do that,” because we have enough enough information, and details about their character, their political affiliation, and past actions to make that predictions. We like surprises in our stories, even unforeseeable ones, but we like, and even need consistent worlds and characters. And that’s the importance of details in fiction. J.R.R. Tolkien was famous for his contention that he felt like he was constructing, or reporting the history of a fictional time and place. This is important, because, it makes the author more accountable. If the Battle of the Last Alliance is seen by the author as a legitimate historical event, then he must control all the details, make it consistent with the rest of the story, and perhaps most of all, not forget that it happened. Events have to have real consequences in these rich and detailed worlds, or else the worlds break down under the weight of their own complexity. This is where we can really appreciate the burden of a fiction writer, in constructing his worlds.
James Joyce was probably the most exacting of all authors when it came to details. He famously asserted that he wished for a reader to be able to reconstruct Dublin, brick by brick from his descriptions in Ulysses. While he lived in France, he frequently wrote back to relatives living in Dublin, demanding the exact time it took to walk between different locations in the city, taking specific routes. The world seems real, because Joyce has put in so much effort to construct it. He uses all the senses, the sights the smells, the tastes of the city. They are filtered of course, through the consciousnesses of the characters, but still, the level of detail, and texture is almost staggering. Joyce was able to do this because he intimately knew the city. He was able to make it come alive, because to him, it was alive.
We only grasp the details when we experience them. Writing well, and more importantly, living well, has a lot to do with being attentive to the details around us. Have you ever met a really bad storyteller? Chances are, the problem with their stories is that they are vague. They went somewhere, they did something, and came back. That’s the typical plot of most stories, and there is nothing wrong with it. The problem is that most people don’t know how to color in their stories. They leave us with a gray unpredictable world, with nothing to follow, no bread crumb trail to lead out of the woods. Think of a T.V. show or novel that has engrossed you. You probably spent, or spend an inordinate amount of time wondering the simple question, “what happens next?” Will they survive? Who will she marry? What will this world inside the story look like at the end. It’s the temptation to read the last page, or the frustration at the guy who drives by and tells everyone waiting in line for Harry Potter that Snape kills Dumbledore. We want to know what happens, but we also want to give ourselves the chance to predict, and that’s why we need details. Without them, the world is bland, and we can’t predict. The story becomes bland, because the author can seemingly do anything, and it would make sense. It takes the fun out of the guesswork, or internet forums where we try to figure out what will happen in the next episode of our favorite drama.
Too often, we’re very adept at paying attention to details in last night’s episode of The Walking Dead, than in our own lives. I don’t mean the kind of detail where you use three different lint rollers on your suit before you leave the house. Or the kind where you color coordinate your Tupperware. I mean the kind of very personal details that make our lives stories worth telling. We increasingly wander through our days in a daze, head down, engrossed in our phones, coffee in hand. This social phenomenon has been derided enough, so I don’t need to beat the dead horse, but our society suffers from a terribly short attention span. It’s evident when you speak with people, most of them can remember few or any of the details you hit them with. They can probably parrot back generalities about where you work or where you went to college, for the most part, we are very unattentive to the characters in our real lives. I know many people who could give me more information about their favorite character in Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones, than they could about many of their friends. To be sure, these are fictional shows, and we are granted entree to every recess of these characters’ lives, something we should not have and probably wouldn’t want, into the lives of real people. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve become filled with pseudo-emotions. People often seem more invested in fictional families, friends, and lovers, than their own.
Of course, this is understandable. The regular, run of the mill, unexamined life, is boring. T.V. shows, and movies and books are idealized, hyperactive versions of normal life. This is why we escape to them, and why they are fun. I love all of these detailed narratives, but I’m afraid we don’t bring that same attention to detail back with us to the real world. In the end, those worlds are merely a poor reflection of the richness and complexity of our real one. The real world though, requires us to dig a bit deeper though, for those complexities. Life, real life, is the best written of all works. It’s pacing may be a little slow at times, but the wealth, breadth, and depth of experience and description is second to none. Furthermore, it’s not heavy handed in its symbolism or foreshadowing. In most stories, if there is a gun on the mantle in the first scene, it will be used in the last scene. Obviously that doesn’t apply in real life. If you check in to a rugged mountain cottage with a gun on the mantle, the murderer could use a knife, the gun, or there may not even be one at all. Though the details are still there, waiting for those who live an examined life, they don’t determine anything.
Details make up our whole world, but they don’t make our world whole. One of my favorite scenes in all of fiction comes at the end of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. Spoilers, the main character dies at the end, and the last scene sees his mother and his best friend going through his room:
He left everything just as it was," Bonamy marvelled. " Nothing arranged. All his letters strewn about for any one to read. What did he expect ? Did he think he would come back ? " he mused, standing in the middle of Jacob's room. Bonamy took up a bill for a hunting-crop. *' That seems to be paid," he said. There were Sandra's letters. Mrs. Durrant was taking a party to Greenwich.
To us, the reader, these objects don’t add up to much. The junk one might find in any room. But to those who were close to Jacob, each item becomes almost a relic of who he once was. Bonamy knows he bought that riding crop, and even though it seems frivolous to think about paying the bill, he knows Jacob well enough to attach some significance to it. Our lives are filled with details. To a large extent, they are just clutter. If someone were to comb through your room tomorrow while you were at work, what would they know about you? Can you know anything about someone through the details they choose to exhibit in their outward lives? The answer, I would think, is an emphatic no. Those details are meaningless, unless someone pays attention to them, and not in the look at me, attention-obsessed “tag me on facebook doing something cool” kind of way. Details are only valuable insofar as we have others in our lives willing to connect them, to stack them up and weigh them, in order to find some approximation of that elusive chimera of who we really are.