Suspend Your Disbelief

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How Fiction Works Discussion Review: Telling vs. Untelling Details

In his chapter on “Detail,” Wood takes on a standby of Fiction I: the telling detail. Details, we’re usually told, should be significant, not gratuitous; they should give us some particular insight into the character or the setting. If there are telling details, Wood suggests, there must be untelling details as well. But do “irrelevant” or “untelling” details really exist?

Wood’s main whipping boy here is Barthes, discussing a barometer in Flaubert’s A Simple Heart:

The piano, Barthes argues, is there to suggest bourgeois status, the boxes and cartons perhaps to suggest disorder. But why is the barometer there? The barometer denotes nothing; it is an object “neither incongruous nor significant”; it is apparently “irrelevant.” Its business is to denote reality, it is there to create the effect, the atmosphere of the real. It simply says: “I am the real.”

Although Wood quibbles with Barthes’s distinction between denoting and signifying reality, he eventually agrees: the barometer is there to make the story seem real. (His attempt to distinguish their positions—”The barometer doesn’t say ‘I am the real’ so much as ‘Am I not just the sort of thing you would find in such a house?'”— is pure semantics.) Barometers are “dully typical” objects, Wood concludes, which “tell us something about the kinds of houses they are in: middle class rather than upper class; a certain kind of conventionality…” In short, the barometer is convincing and necessary stage-dressing.

Essentially, Wood appears to conclude that there is no such thing as irrelevant detail. Life itself is full of detail, and including apparently superfluous details in our fiction makes our fiction look more like real life. “The barometer, the puddle, the adjustment of the blindfold, are not ‘irrelevant,'” Wood says. “These details would obviously be exchangeable with other, similar details; they are not crucial to anything. They would be there to make us feel that this is lifelike.” (my emphasis)

As a writer, do you find Wood’s argument about detail to be revolutionary? If you’re a detail freak, do you now feel liberated to put more in to create “the atmosphere of the real”? Or is Wood simply stating the obvious here—that some details can be “telling,” but that often, details are needed simply to make the fictional world seem more realistic and lifelike?

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