Choosing Details with Tamara Vardomskaya
This week’s story is available on Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Click the image to get to issue 192. I’d suggest reading at least the first 15 paragraphs or so for context, but it’d be really cool, also, if you read the entire story. Or, as I did, listen to the podcast, which is incredibly well-read. As much as possible, I’ll avoid spoilers.
One of my unsettling habits is “accidentally” writing fairy tales.
Haven’t done it much recently, but it used to be a huge problem for me. It was easy to see why it was happening: a lot of the work that I was reading and enjoying most was fairy-tale like, and fairy tales have this resolve-or-die pacing that worked for me while I was doing the whole full-time work/full-time class thing. But I didn’t always want to write a fairy tale and didn’t always feel in control of that.
But I was able to find out why the stories came off reading like fairy tales. One reason, already mentioned, was the pacing. It was quick, almost like the narration was skimming the story. Minimal on description, minimal on character. Consequently, the second major reason my work read like fairy tales was a lack of detail.
So minimally-younger me shrugs and decides to include more “grounding” details in one of my fairy-tale like stories.
But the problem becomes how to choose details. You can just toss in a bunch of description and detail and cross your fingers. Your story will sludge up and readers will have to wade through all that.
Here’s a story that does an excellent job of being choosy.
For a study of detail, is there a better place to turn than secondary world fantasy?
Tamara Vardomskaya’s “The Three Dancers of Gizari” from Beneath Ceaseless Skies back in February (that’s really all the longer ago it was?) uses detail to awesomely. In so few words, all while moving the story forward, Vardomskaya gives us an excellent sense of this world, which we know from the get-go is in a modern-ish era thanks to the quick detail of the “Arts Today” magazine (an important setup move in a genre when readers tend to expect older eras).
Through the use of detail, we get this intense look at not just the history of the world but also at the characters.
And, also, what an incredibly well-structured, well-paced story, complete with a surprise ending that was totally given away in the first scene, somehow without me catching on! Seriously, read it and be amazed.
We learn such a wide-breadth of information in this tale: a brief history of each character, of the use of artistic materials, and of each of the two countries involved. We also get detail on how women are treated in these societies and how the rich and poor differ (and just how big a gap there is between the rich and the poor). We also happen to learn about the evolution of theater troupes and media conglomerates the world over.
How do we learn all of this?
We learn it through Bathenica Morning, the point-of-view character.
It seems obvious to say that details of the world should come from the main character’s concerns. That’s advice I think I’ve heard before. But it’s also so vague as to be mostly useless.
Switching gears, let’s talk about specific moments in the story. After you read the first 15 paragraphs you should basically be able to name the kinds of details that the story returns to pretty often. Well, you should be able to name at least one, maybe two, or all three if you’re a genius. But once you’ve read the story to the end once or twice, it becomes fairly obvious that the story limits itself (for the most part) to three kinds of details.
- Costs of Things
- Trivia about/Descriptions of Art
- Family Names
Firstly, I’m going to focus on the most obvious set of details: cost.
One of the first details we get is the cost of a floor mosaic (1,023,048.18 thalers sterling). Interesting to note that this is a very large number and we know it before we even get the context provided by Bathenica’s weekly wage (only 30 thalers sterling a week), at which point we understand that a million ts. is a ton of money in this world. And, because her backstory seems to indicate that she’s come a long way, we understand that 30 ts. a week is a good wage.
As the story goes on, Bathenica lists the price of just about everything. We come to understand that it is an obsession of hers and it puts that first million dollar price-tag in perspective so that when you re-read the story the constant pricing of items seems almost some kind of OCD response to anxiety.
Which matches up well with the other two kinds of details.
Bathenica’s anxiety about money goes back to her childhood and connects with her last name “Morning” which is indicative of her class. Through her narration, she ensures that you know everyone’s last names, because she is constantly thinking about the stratification caused by family. Even in the first scene she refers to Izida, who she is close with, by her first and last name. Awfully formal but also, an important part of Bathenica’s psyche.
Because of her low income, art becomes this thing that Bathenica strives for but cannot actually have.
We realize that while she can afford nice things on her wage, she could never afford a million dollar mosaic, and certainly would never deign to walk all over said piece of art, the way her boss does in the first paragraph. But it is an interest of hers to the point of obsession, so she gives us all the juicy tidbits about art.
These three detail touchstones (the luxury of art, the stratification of names, the prices of everything) spin around each other in this story, creating a subliminal kind of drama. She wants art, but can’t afford it, and it makes her anxious enough that she is constantly picking at the cost of daily things. It is this drama that pushes us headlong toward the end of this story and the terribly satisfying resolution. Funny thing: these same details also disguise the ending–claiming that it’s impossible. Without these details and their constantly revolving conflict, the story would be boring.
So while “details should come from the main character’s concerns” is true, it can be better said.
Better way to say it: Details should spawn from the main character’s obsessions.
Best way to say it: Details should spawn from the main character’s obsessions and evoke the plot of the story.
When you know what your story is about, whether it’s before you draft or after, figure out which details can contribute to the push and pull of the conflict. The right details can move your plot and bring it to a satisfying conclusion. Of course, this isn’t the only technique that I’ve seen for choosing details (Kij Johnson and Kelly Link often list stuff in big chunks) and it probably wouldn’t work for every story, but in the right narrative, it can be very effective.
Have anything to add? Anything you disagree with? Let me know in the comments. Or let me know if there’s anything you want me to read or if there’s a difficulty you’re having that you want me to keep an eye out for while I read.