Avoiding the Curse of the Superficial

The superficial, the general, skimming across the top, whatever you want to call it, hear me now, it is not a desirable thing, either in people (sorry, Paris Hilton) or the written word.

I've read several different pieces lately that shared this dreaded affliction.  The words stayed on the surface, never delving deep.  Think about it: remaining on the surface is like flat-lining, no peaks, no valleys, no highs, no lows.  It is like talking to someone who drones on in a dull monotone.  You are lulled to sleep.  This is not a good thing, either when talking to someone or reading something.  You want to keep your readers awake, thrilled with the liveliness of your prose, desperate to keep turning pages.

But how, pray tell, does one do this?

One way is through the use of detail.  For instance, perhaps you might have a sentence such as the following:

They sat on the front porch and ate breakfast.

It is an okay sentence, though a bit boring.  How can we make it more interesting?  Unwrap it.  Think of how much fun it is to unwrap a present.  The same is true for unwrapping a sentence.  It is a process of taking it apart and adding more detail, of going deeper in order to show the reader the picture you have in your mind.  You do this by looking at every aspect of the sentence and digging for more details.

So, looking at the above sentence, let's begin with they.  Who?  How many of them is implied in they?  What do they look like?  What is their relationship?  So perhaps you answer these questions and come up with:

The two sisters with blonde hair sat on the front porch and ate breakfast.

What about the verb sat?  What did the two blonde sisters sit on?  A porch swing with pillows?  Two deck chairs?  A wood bench?  Did they perch on the steps of the front porch?  These choices affect your narrative in multiple ways.  A porch swing covered with pillows implies a higher level of prosperity than a complete lack of chairs or two old dusty lawn chairs.  If the two sisters are sitting on a hard wooden bench they may not be as apt to linger over the conversation as if they are gently swaying on the porch swing.   So now, after pondering such issues,  we might have a sentence that read:

The two sisters with blonde hair swayed gently on the wood swing on the front porch and ate breakfast.

Now, onto the porch.  Does it wrap around the house?  Is it a wood deck?  Or perhaps more like a broad landing at the top of several steps?  Or is it a low veranda?  Here we go:

The two sisters with blonde hair swayed gently on the wood swing on the porch which wrapped around the house and ate breakfast.

And now, you guessed it, time to figure out breakfast.  Pancakes and syrup?  Maybe that's a touch too hard to eat on the swing.  How about Egg McMuffins from McDonald's?  But does that fit with the wood swing and the plump pillows?  No let's go with peaches and yogurt.

The two sisters with blonde hair swayed gently on the wood swing on the porch which wrapped around the house, eating peaches and yogurt.

So there you have it, an unwrapped sentence.

Ah, but perhaps it is just the wee-est bit too much.  Too many details blur the ultimate effect.  So now what you must do is decide which detail you wish to emphasize.  Find the telling detail for this particular scene.  Do you want to emphasize how much the sisters, with their blonde hair, look alike?  Is it a scene set in the south, where the day is going to be a scorcher, and thus you want to emphasize the languor or the day, focusing on the delicate swaying of the swing?  Or do you want to linger on the sensuality of the peaches?

Only you, the author, can decide.

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5 Comments on "Avoiding the Curse of the Superficial"

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Derek
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Derek
10/25/2008 04:32

You’ve provided a good lesson there. You really had me wondering about the two sisters. This article lured me to keep reading just to find out what you were going to do with these two girls. Without mentioning the glamour of these two girls, I have associated them with the peaches they are eating.

Of course now, you would have the power to turn that on its head and turn them into old toothless crones, who could not longer bite into the peaches…

Sorry for my sense of humour 🙂

Linda
Guest
10/25/2008 11:27

Cool post! I like the way you add the different layers. It’s a bit like the British game pass the parcel in reverse. 😉

:: waves :: Hello! Yes, I really do still exist. 😉

Charlotte
Guest
10/25/2008 21:37

Linda, thanks for taking time off from you riding and your writing and dropping by.

Derek, I like the old crones. Thanks for your Welsh humor. And maybe you can explain Linda’s reference to the British game!

Linda
Guest
10/25/2008 22:21
Okay, here’s how it goes: You wrap a small gift. Then you wrap it in more and more paper, lots of sheets (often, newspaper). Enough tape so that only one sheet comes off at once; kids can get hectic. Sometimes you wrap interim gifts–candy and such–into the sheets, but not all the sheets. Then you get the kids sitting in a circle and turn on the music. The parcel is passed from kid to kid. The adult turns off the music (randomly, but a skilled adult will make sure each kid gets one chance at ripping off a sheet). The… Read more »
Charlotte
Guest
10/27/2008 21:58

Oh, I love it! Thanks for the explanation.

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