By John Copenhaver
Revelation in fiction comes in many forms: In a murder mystery, the curtain is pulled back on the identity of the culprit. In other narratives, the curtain is pulled back on the true nature of a character. For a revelation to work in fiction, it must feel surprising and inevitable to the reader. These qualities seem contradictory but in the hands of a skilled writer, the tension between the inevitable and the surprising is always present; it is the only way a revelation is fairly earned.
So, how do we craft our stories to produce this effect? You embed enough “significant detail” about character, setting, and action prior to the revelation to suggest an emotional shape of the story without divulging the revelation, whether it’s a plot twist or an epiphany or both.
What are “significant details”? In her book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway explains that “a detail is concrete if it appeals to one of the five senses; it is significant if it also conveys an idea or a judgment of both.” Significant details, then, are details that are colored with a character’s (or narrator’s) point-of-view.
Here’s a description devoid of significance:
Roxy, my chihuahua-mix, is short-haired, taupe-colored, 22-inches long with erect ears and a straight tail.
To me, however, she’s the color of lightly toasted Wonder Bread, and her alert ears are soft and silky, and her small nose damp, reassuring.
To my friend who hates dogs, she’s a slippery beige shark, weaving between legs, patiently searching for a tender ankle maul.
The last two descriptions are significant because they employ details that reveal character; they suggest a relationship between the thing described and the describer. Of course, when that relationship has tension—Rozy as a small tan land-shark—it’s even more engaging for the reader.
Whether or not readers are aware of it, significant details urge them to search for a pattern. It’s like standing close to a pointillist masterpiece and then backing slowly away. Eventually, the pattern coalesces, and you see the image in full. These types of details accrue and converge to predict the emotional outcome of the narrative. Readers don’t know what the characters will do, but when they do it, it should feel appropriate to their psychology. It’s irritating when characters behave in a way that's not in keeping with what we know about them. However, when we have a rich supply of significant details but haven’t predicted what actions those details foreshadow, it’s exhilarating and convincing when a character makes a surprising choice. Each significant detail is a building block of character, giving the narrative an emotional topography without drawing a map for the reader: the result is surprising and inevitable.
John Copenhaver’s historical crime novel, Dodging and Burning (Pegasus, 2018), received a Publishers Weekly starred review, and Library Journal starred review and Debut of the Month. The Associated Press calls it “a riveting debut,” and BOLO Books: “A masterwork of tone and voice … a beacon for voices too often stifled.” Copenhaver writes a crime fiction review column for Lambda Literary called “Blacklight,” and he is the five-time recipient of Artist Fellowships from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. He’s a Lambda Fellow, and he has completed residencies at VCCA, VSC, and Ragdale. He’s a Larry Neal awardee, and his work has appeared in CrimeReads, Electric Lit, Glitterwolf, PANK, New York Journal of Books, Washington Independent Review of Books, and others. He grew up in the mountains of southwestern Virginia and currently lives in DC where he chairs the 7-12 grade English department at Flint Hill School. Website: www.jcopenhaver.com Facebook: John CopenhaverTwitter: @johncopenhaver
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