I am having an online discussion about description based on my article “An Image Fit Only For a Horror Movie.” We’ve been talking about simile and metaphor, and how to create vibrant images. As you know, I’m not fond of similes and metaphors, so I look for the significant detail, the one detail that will give the whole, such as crayon scribbles on a wall to show . . . well, whatever the reader thinks it shows.
Sometimes this significant detail transcends mere description and becomes a metaphor. One participant in the discussion is Bruce DeSilva, the writing coach at The Associated Press in New York City, whose agent is shopping his first novel, a crime story set in Providence, R.I. Bruce told a wonderful story that immediately captured my attention. Bruce wrote:
In my experience, the best images spring not from the imagination but from careful observation. Let me tell you a story.
Several years ago, I went for a walk with a young reporter I was thinking of hiring. As we strolled through Times Square, he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks and said: “That’s amazing!”
What was? I didn’t see anything.
I watched as he whipped out his digital camera and started snapping pictures of a six-foot-tall, two-ton, concrete ice cream cone, painted up pretty, standing on the sidewalk in front of an ice cream parlor.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “What’s amazing about that?”
“Bruce,” he said, his tone indicating he was disappointed in me. “Look at it!”
“I’m looking,” I said, ” but I still don’t get it.”
“Bruce,” he said, “it’s chained to the wall. We live in a city where you have to chain a six-foot-tall, two-ton ice cream cone to a wall so no one will steal it.”
Well, yeah. That was amazing.
But how many millions of people, me included, had walked passed it without ever noticing the chain, or, more importantly, what the chain represented?
You don’t see the chain unless you are a careful observer, and it takes a poet’s sensibility to make the leap from the chain to what it represents.
We never did write a story that used the ice cream cone as a symbol of crime in our city — but we could have.
I hired the young man on the spot.
See? Significant detail and metaphor all rolled into one. If you are on Facebook and would like to participate in the discussion, feel free to stop by the Suspense/Thriller Writers group discussion.
February 26, 2009 at 2:24 pm
Next time I drive past the 12 foot rabbit near here, I’m going to slow down and see if there’s a chain.
February 26, 2009 at 2:30 pm
The young reporter must have been a reformed thief (he was the only one to notice the chain bummer, and he assessed the weight of the cone in a jiffy).
Prove me wrong 🙂
February 26, 2009 at 3:54 pm
Hate to prove you wrong, but … I was that young reporter. And I’ve never stolen a thing except for my wife’s heart.
Ted Anthony, formerly Bruce DeSilva job applicant
February 26, 2009 at 9:36 pm
Of course, everything on the sidewalk in NY is chained, so it may have been a case of KPO: keen perception of the obvious. It worked though, so well done Ted!
February 27, 2009 at 1:55 am
My comment was a joke intended to illustrate the article itself. Reading it, I OBSERVED a few details and made a leap from the young reporter’s prowess to what it MIGHT imply in fiction – which is what the article urges the reader to do, if my understanding is correct.
Unruly, a reader
February 27, 2009 at 2:11 pm
On thing Ted can always steal is your attention. Pick up his wonderful non-fiction book, “Chasing the Rising Sun,” and you’ll see what I mean.
February 28, 2009 at 3:06 am
@Bruce: thanks, I’ve just looked up Ted’s book. It enjoys great reviews. This comment in particular suggests it’s a book I need to read: “It’s about the making of modern American values and culture. It’s an examination of who we are as a people and how we got here.” (quote from Amazon review by G. Giovannetti).
And hey, he’s definitely stolen my attention. Proves both of us right 🙂