Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Little things mean a lot

Consider this scene:

"... [Danny] came forward on the board, muscles swirling, and executed a running forward somersault, knees tucked, toes taut, so perfectly, uncoiling into the water through a soft splash as symmetrical as the handles of a vase, that one of the judges flashed the 10 card. ... a patter of applause from both teams greeted the diver as he surfaced ... But on his next dive Danny, aware that we were all expecting another miracle, tensed up, lost the rhythm of the approach, came out of the one-and-a-half twist a moment too soon, and slapped the water with his back. ... 'Well,' my father said, 'the poor kid gave it all he had.' And when Danny surfaced this time, my father, and only my father, clapped."*

I've always loved that last line: my father, and only my father, clapped. It tells us much about the narrator's father. Throughout the book, the narrator shows us similar scenes: his father damages his own car trying to help a fellow motorist, picks up a hitchhiker (who steals his gloves), and greets a drunken panhandler with the utmost courtesy. These little gestures build a portrait of a character who is kind, who sympathizes with the underdog, who goes out of his way to help others. And the portrait isn't sappily drawn: the narrator is fifteen**, and as exasperated and embarrassed by his father as teenagers often are by their parents. The phrase "only my father" carries frustration and an attempt at sophistication, as well as an undertone of admiration and affection.

When I think of important details, the ones that fit naturally in a story yet reveal much, I often think of this example: the lone man applauding effort despite its failure; the son observing this. When I write, I try to make my small details resonate and reveal in this way.

*source: The Centaur, by John Updike
**Technically, he's older, looking back at things that happened when he was fifteen. But while some of the scenes are definitely written through the narrator's adult viewpoint, others remove that filter and put us right into the teenager's mindset. The dive scene is one of the latter.


  1. Excellent example. Thanks for sharing. ^_^

    1. This is one of my favorite books. I find so much in it.