When we write of the lovers on the back row at the cinema, cuddling up to one another because the girl is afraid for the maiden on the silver screen, who is fleeing from the grotesque monster that refuses to die, we don't simply tell the reader that the couple are watching a film. We are specific. We tell them that the characters have gone to see Alien, or the Fly, or whatever it is. That they've gone to the Paramount, which has sat on the corner of Western and Third since the fifties, withstanding two arson attacks and the red scare. We give the reader detail, and whenever possible we name a noun, a theatre: the Old Vic; an audio appliance: a Walkman; the make of his jacket: Harris Tweed; the cheese they're eating: Yorkshire Blue.
We do this to bring the world alive. These are details that more than likely, the reader will forget immediately, but whilst they are there - like the immense work put into cinema these days by Industrial Light and Magic, Weta Digital... and others - the reader can feel immersed.
As, Francine Prose states (in her wonderful - you must go buy it - Reading Like a Writer):
... God is in the details, we all must on some deep level believe that truth is in there, too. Or maybe it is that God is truth: Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth - a fact that every liar knows instinctively and too well.It's funny that I should bring this up twice in two days - I digress now, in a particularly Sebald-like manner - for while discussing Sebald's work The Rings of Saturn, I read out the passage above. Why? Well, let me tell you (don't you hate narrators that speak like this? It's so condescending): Sebald's work, as previously mentioned, is faction - it details facts and figures that link in with its themes, but it goes into scenes and locations that Sebald would have no knowledge of, even in research (and thus he makes up descriptions of thought and observation). And he'd do this... he does this, to ensure that the reader is invested and ready to hear the facts that Sebald wants to impart. By lacing the prose with details he provides the reader with something on which to hang their thoughts, their subjectivities and their memory.
But remember, that gratuitous references in metaphors/similes or merely observations, must serve a purpose. Certainly, the Yorkshire Blue, the Walkman, the Harris Tweed all inform on choices made by the character(s) involved; and they may also advise on place and time.
Bees in the Head
Countering specificity is bees in the head syndrome. Providing the reader with too much imagery, too many character names and/or too much specificity renders the reader in a comatose state. They can no longer concentrate on the narrative. As an authoritative author, you must lead the reader gently through the narrative, providing names and details in a timely fashion.
When getting down to writing the default mind-set we enter into is past tense. Whenever we talk to others about things we've done, seen, etc, it's always in the past tense - that's how we relate stories to one another:
This morning I got up at 5:30 and climbed into the car at 6. It was so cold, but after five minutes on the road the feeling returned to my toes.Trying to retell the story in the present tense, especially to someone you're talking to, is slightly at odd with the norm:
It is morning and I climb out of bed. The clock reads 5:30... It's 6 and I get into the car, finding it cold but my toes are warming up now that I'm on the road.It doesn't work person to person, but does on the page, giving a sense of immediacy between writer and reader.
But the past tense is baggy; it can be construed in different ways, easily misunderstood, and complex. Jim told us this:
Groucho Marx is now seventy. He's an old man, but he still loves to socialise. He's out one night at a party and as the evening draws to a close he gets his coat and makes for the door. The hostess sees him going and stops him on the threshold to wish him goodnight.The present tense isn't a generous tense. It's not wide-angled. It's restrictive. But it has its advantage. In the example above the joke is told in the present tense - as most jokes are told. This is the default tense for jokes, giving the audience the impression that the information is unravelling right at that moment, that it is happeneing at the same time that the comedian is telling it.
"Did you have a good time?" she asks.
"Yes I did," says Groucho, wagging his cigar and raising his eyebrows, "but this wasn't it."
However, the crux of the joke - the dialogue - regards past tense: Did you have a good time, and, Yes I did, but this wasn't it. And by its very nature - the comedic missunderstanding between Groucho and the hostess - highlights the bagginess.