It is midway through act three of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington, and the “cousin” character, Asa Trenchard, has just dressed down a haughty British matron, Mrs. Mountchessington. As the matron exits the scene in a huff, Trenchard shouts a few parting insults at her, capping it off with the gag-line: “…you sockdologizing old man-trap.”
It is the comedic pinnacle of the evening’s performance, and the sound of hearty laughter ripples from the audience. But the mirthful moment is interrupted by the crack of a single gunshot. Seconds later, a dark-haired man swings himself over the rail of an upper-box section above stage left. He leaps down to the boards; and with a dramatic air more suited to a Shakespearean tragedy than a nineteenth-century farce, he faces the audience—now suddenly his audience—waves a long dagger in a gesture of triumph, and rushes across the stage to escape through a rear exit. It only takes an instant for the crowd to discern what has just occurred. The honored guest in that upper box, President Abraham Lincoln, has been assassinated.
Nearly every person in attendance that night of 14 April, 1865 has at one time or another proffered their account of this pivotal event in American history. Many of the testimonies exist today in their original forms, as letters, memoirs, interviews, and court transcripts. In 1995, Timothy S. Good compiled many of these into a single volume, We Saw Lincoln Shot: One Hundred Eyewitness Accounts.
Good’s compilation is fascinating reading for anyone interested in the period. But the book is also instructive for writers who are committed to honing their craft, particularly the techniques of description, because it invites us to consider the question: what do people remember in terms of detail, and why do they remember it?
For the most part, witnesses to the Lincoln assassination faithfully recall the very basic elements of the event: hearing the shot fired; seeing assassin John Wilkes Booth leap from the box to the stage, experiencing the subsequent uproar of anguish and rage among theatergoers. Memories of specific actions, however, sometimes differ from witness to witness. For example, many recall Booth shouting the defiant motto of Virginia, “Sic semper tyrannis,” but they don’t always concur on when specifically he did this. Some individuals claim to have heard nothing at all from Booth; and still others credit him with saying something else entirely, such as: “I have done it,” “the South shall be free,” or some other utterance.
But a careful reading of these testimonies reveals that the witnesses, almost to a person, do agree in their recollection of one specific detail: the visual image of the dagger Booth held aloft as he momentarily faced the crowd. What is more, many respondents, if not most of them, indicate seeing a glint of the footlights reflecting off the blade as he did so. It is perhaps fitting that this single action, and especially the reflection image, is so universally memorable. In terms of drama—and for that matter, of literature too—it perfectly underscores climax, not only in the story of actor-turned-killer John Wilkes Booth, but that of president Lincoln and also, by extension, the American Civil War era. Out of all of the details submitted by witnesses to the assassination, that dagger blade proves to have been the most compelling, simply because it ties together the many disparate parts of that dreadful evening.
As students of craft, we first become aware of the potency of certain details over others by reading and rereading the work of others. Later, in our writing, we apply this awareness by winnowing through the many possible ways to describe a thing before we make a final decision as to what constitutes a telling detail. Doubtless, most great authors have learned this in a similar manner, so it might be beneficial to us at this point to turn to a proven master and one of her better-known masterpieces.
Eudora Welty’s 1955 short story, “No Place for You, My Love,” is abundant with telling details, so much so that I often slow my reading of it to avoid missing something. But in the end, I never do. All of Welty’s descriptions are there for a reason. Furthermore, one does not gloss over them. Indeed, one cannot, simply because they are both compelling and essential to a deeper understanding of the story.
The descriptive elements of one scene in particular concretize for me the setting and situation of “No Place for You, My Love.” Moreover, the details make unmistakably clear the stakes that the protagonists—two strangers visiting New Orleans—face during a brief but fraught encounter that carries them into the bayou country south of the city and to the brink of an extramarital act. At one point in their summer drive, the man pulls his rental car off the main road and onto a narrow path of crushed shells, which leads through an old cemetery and into an open space of “violent green grass.” In this verdant clearing stands a tiny Catholic church, a green-and-white frame building surrounded by flower beds. Nearby there is a rectory, and on its doorstep, someone (a parishioner?) has left “a fresh-caught catfish the size of a baby—a fish wearing whiskers and bleeding.”
Off to the side, on a clothesline,
… a priest’s black gown on a hanger hung airing, swaying at man’s height, in a vague, trainlike, ladylike sweep along an evening breath that might otherwise have seemed imaginary from the unseen, felt river.
With the motor cut off, and the raging of the insects about them, [the man and woman] sat looking out at the green and white and black and red and pink as they leaned against the sides of the car.
“What is your wife like?” she asked.
Welty’s deft placement of physical detail in this short scene helps to pull the developing story together before sending it further up the road. The setting here is at once comforting and ominous, sacred and profane: A quaint, quiet churchyard becomes a wayside stop for a married man and a married woman, each of them toying in their own roundabout, unspoken way with the prospect of infidelity. But the presence of a church building, the priest’s cassock on the line, and other telling particulars—and significantly also, the tenor of moral reproach they embody—seem not to register for the man and woman. Instead, the two appear more concerned over the “raging” insects flying about; and their gazes fix not on the material elements of scene before them, but rather on the colors they manifest: “the green and white and black and red and pink.” Are they ignoring the details out of embarrassment? Perhaps for shame or guilt? A reader cannot help but to wonder.
Then something even more interesting, and telling, happens. The parish priest steps out of the rectory, wearing only his underwear, and his observational behavior practically mirrors theirs. He looks in their direction, though not so much at them as at the man’s automobile—and then only for a moment, and absently, “as though he wondered what time it was.”
Nor does he engage the couple in any way. It is as if they are not even there. Or, alternately, do his actions imply that the two are already beyond redemption? No matter, for the scene concludes as the half-dressed cleric simply retrieves his cassock from the line, grabs the dead catfish on his front stoop and, without further ceremony, walks back inside of the house.
Welty is but one of many authors who have distinguished themselves in the art of the telling detail. In his depiction of the impromptu cocktail party at Myrtle Wilson’s apartment in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald marshals his considerable descriptive skills to render a palpable scene of drunken abandon and ultimate violence. Another great example is found in Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement, in which the author employs details of body language to emphasize the subtle interplay of naïve flirtation and predatory lust that precedes Paul Marshall’s rape of the young Lola Quincey.
No matter what we are looking for in terms of telling detail, the material is out there. And we owe it to ourselves to seek examples that appeal to us, both for the sake of entertainment and the purpose of inspiration. Study how these proven authors use description in their best work, and then consider how we too might employ these and similar techniques as part of our own craft strategy.
Most importantly, never stop doing so. There is always more to read and learn along the course of our writing life. And almost certainly, there’s more to write as well.