I’m writing incoherently lately. It’s annoying. I’ve got blog posts half-written and two short stories half-written, and I keep getting bogged down in questioning whether I’m making any sense. But I’d like to get back to using this blog to keep myself on track as a writer, always answering the question of whether I wrote my thousand words, so I’m going to do that, even if I can’t manage any other sensible words. So, have I made my 1000 words? Not for days. But today I’m going to try, and tomorrow I will report back.
And now back to Criteria-Based Content Analysis. I’ll try to manage coherency.
I group five criteria under one heading: The Weird. The actual criteria names are complication, unusual details, superfluous details, accurately reported details misunderstood and external associations (which refers to details unrelated to the current story).
Not all of those are likely to be equally useful to us as writers. For example, accurately reported details misunderstood may be very helpful to an adult investigator interviewing a child about a sexual assault (which is one of the major uses of CBCA) but your POV character is probably not going to be able to make use of this criteria very often. I’m reminded, though, of the first time my son saw snow. He was not quite one, and when the snow touched his bare skin, he said, “hot, hot, hot.” He’d never felt extreme cold before. I corrected him, of course, but first I felt the snow and was reminded that snow against your skin does feel a lot like a burn. If he’d been articulate enough to say, “I felt the snow and it burned me,” that would be an example of an accurately reported detail misunderstood.
Unusual details, though, are a powerful tool for writers. Harry Potter’s bedroom could have been a closet. Instead it was a cupboard under the stairs. In the different versions of the story I told about my house being burglarized, I lost, variously, “stuff,” “a camcorder,” and “my baby’s laugh.” The last is the unusual detail. It gives the story weight, makes the story stronger and more real.
Superfluous details can also be great, which may seem like an odd thing to say, given that we want to follow Vonnegut’s advance and make every sentence either advance the plot or reveal character. How can superfluous details do that? Well, it might depend on your definition of superfluous.
Let’s go back to the scene from A Gift of Ghosts. We left off with Rose, saying, “When I opened it up and that snake slithered out, I cried.”
Henry continues, with: “I went down to the springs and caught some brown snakes. Nice big ones, a couple feet long. Harmless, but easy to mistake for cottonmouths. Stuck ‘em in Tommy’s desk. When he opened his desk, you could hear the screaming half a block away.” Henry chuckled at the memory.
Rose smiled, too. “I wish I’d been remembering that snake when he asked me out. I might have thought twice.”
This entire incident—the whole memory of the past—could easily be considered a superfluous detail. It’s unrelated to the overall story of Akira and Zane, and doesn’t even have much to do with whether Henry and Rose should move on.
But I spent hours of research time trying to find the right snake for Henry to put in that lunchbox. It felt important to me, even though I didn’t know why. Taking a closer look, I think it was worth it. The snake is a) a specific detail, that b) provides contextual embedding, setting the stage in the Florida swamps rather than the California desert, and c) includes interaction–action leads to reaction leads to action. And although it’s a seemingly superfluous detail, within the context of the story, it reveals character and a relationship between characters.
I could have told the reader that Henry loved Rose his entire life. Akira could have realized that and thought, “wow, he’s loved her forever,” and there you go. Instead, I showed it. That superfluous detail becomes a powerful demonstration of how far Henry was willing to go to take care of Rose.
So obviously, you want your weird, unusual, and superfluous details to be details that serve the story, not details thrown in at random—but they’ll make the story more plausible either way.
732 words in this blog post, so I owe myself at least a few hundred words of fiction now! Off I go to work on that. With any luck Akira will finally stop having tea with a ghost.