Cormac McCarthy has been the most recent influence on my writing. His sharp lines and character detachment helped me isolate what I believe is my writing voice. Part of his voice is the poetry he creates using the most mundane of words. He takes a simple scene and breaks it down.
When reading I like to do one of two things to the text depending on the author. In McCarthy’s case I like to devolve his lines - taking a complexity and making it simple. In doing this I’m not trying to improve his story. What I’m doing is breaking down his writing style so I can understand it better. I’ll show you what I mean with a passage from The Road.
“He woke in the dark of the woods in the leaves shivering violently. He sat up and felt about for the boy. He held his hands to his ribs. Warmth and movement. Heartbeat.”
“He woke in the dark woods shivering violently. He sat up and felt for the the boy and found him. He placed his hands on the boy and felt his heartbeat.”
M: “He woke in the dark of the woods in the leaves shivering violently.”
D: “He woke in the dark woods shivering violently.”
In the first line you can immediately see the difference in emotion. What’s missing? Detail.
McCarthy didn’t describe the woods as being dark. He described a place within the woods, which in the context of the story, we already know to be dark. He went further and said, “Dark of the woods.” The darkest corner of a dark place. That wasn’t enough though - the character was sleeping in the leaves. You get none of that hopeless emotion when the sentence is broken down.
M: He sat up and felt about for the boy.
D: He sat up and felt for the the boy and found him.
Not much difference here, but his is stronger. In this story the father is determined to not lose his son. There’s a heightened sense of urgency about it. In McCarthy’s line he ends without the father finding the boy. He has pulled us forward with the unanswered question of - Where is the boy? Will the father find him? In my sentence I answered the question and gave no added incentive to continue.
M: “He held his hands to his ribs. Warmth and movement. Heartbeat.”
D: “He placed his hands on the boy and felt his heartbeat.”
I condensed McCarthy’s three lines into one, which is what some writing instructors would encourage. However, you can immediately see the difference in intimacy. McCarthy displays brilliance in his three lines: “He held his hands to his ribs. Warmth and movement. Heartbeat.”
The first of those three lines is the longest and is detached from the boy. It focuses on the father placing his hands on the boy’s ribs. The second line is shorter and zooms in a bit more to describe the boy’s warmth and breath. The third line is intimate and warming. It’s one line: “Heartbeat.”
Because the sentence lengths grow shorter and more intimate, the reader slows and becomes reassured. McCarthy's strength is in his detail.
Here’s how I applied detail to my novel Red Lory.
I could have said:
“They sat at the table staring at the money, their moods visibly falling.”
Instead I chose to say:
“They sat at the table staring at the money, their plates full of crumbs wet with vinegar, and their moods visibly falling.”
I'll admit my writing style isn't for everyone, but the truth remains that readers connect to a story that has life in it - detail.
I’m happy with the results of studying a text and breaking it down to see how some of the greatest writers tell their stories. What writers do you follow and what methods do you use to study them? Did you notice something I didn’t mention? How can you apply detail to your writing?