In the Details

boxsterAnyone who’s ever taken a writing course knows about the sacred totem of Significant Detail. Significant details are the small (or large) observations that say volumes about the subject of your piece. In the most powerful pieces, the significant details are SO significant, so perfect, they seem made up. You just can’t believe the writer got that lucky. And the best writers (who are also the best reporters) get lucky over and over again in spectacular, though non-sexual ways (sorry writer dudes, but being a great writer is no guarantee of female companionship, and I have abundant proof of that, though I refuse to name names).

So why do some writers get all the magical details? It’s either because they have an in with the Big Guy, or because the world is made simply loaded with magic braided into every crease and crevice of reality, and great writers have learned how to look for it and recognize it when they see it.

But really, it’s not that hard. The main trick is to KNOW that they’ll be there if you look for them. Then all you have to do is pay attention. Let’s imagine an example to illustrate how significant details pop up: A nice suburban family – mom, dad, two kids, two dogs — starts to fall apart. What details tell the story?

One day, the mom comes home with a new puppy, a cute, bouncy boxer. As you are admiring it, the dad comes out and makes a face: It was a surprise to him. He appears to laugh it off, but you wonder. A week later, dad comes home with a new Porsche Boxster. You happen to be there when he pulls into the driveway. Mom comes out, mouth open. This is the first she’s heard of it. She makes a joke of it, but really, how funny is a surprise purchase of a $50,000 car?

This family has always been yard-proud. The dad spends hours on his riding mower, keeping the large lawn well tended and fertilized. He’s planted a dozen small trees, including a peach tree which started bearing fruit a few years back, small but perfect and perfectly sweet peaches.

A few months after the boxer-Boxster incidents, some neighborhood teenager driving home after a beer bash late at night misses a bend in the road and plows straight into the peach sapling, totaling the car and sheering the tree off at bumper height. The gash in the lawn eventually heels, but the dead tree, about 6 feet of it with its tangle of branches, is simply tossed up under the shade of a spreading maple tree right in the center of the lawn. It would take about two minutes to drag the carcass across the lawn and toss it in the bordering woods, but that never happens. Ever. Season after season, the remains of the dead tree just sits there, a mess that just can’t be cleaned up or shoved under cover.

Six months later, you learn that the mom has moved out, marriage over, kids joint-custodied.

The spring comes again and the dad can still be seen out on his riding mower, the grass still perfectly manicured, the dead tree still rotting beneath the maple.

The point is, where there’s rot, there’s almost always a rotting peach tree. You just have to understand that, in one form or another, it will be there. All you have to do is keep your eyes open.

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