REVIEW: “The Devil is in the Details” by Connie Willis

Review of Connie Willis, “The Devil is in the Details”, in Tod McCoy and M. Huw Evans, eds., Pocket Workshop: Essays on Living as a Writer (Hydra House Clarion West Writers Workshop, 2021): 45-49 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Not all advice is going to work for all writers in all contexts, and Willis’s piece is one that doesn’t work for me. She rightly points out how it is the little details that can really make the setting of a particular scene, that allow the author to evoke a place or a period without having to spell everything out, and also how getting a detail factually wrong can utterly ruin a story for some readers. What I think this piece misses out is a recognition that sometimes it is the giving of the details, whether they are “correct” or not, that can break the story. She says that these details “have to be specific and vivid” (p. 45); but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt the incongruity of the insertion of details that are too specific, too vivid, where their specificity is becomes more important than the detail itself. I think perhaps my complaint comes from disagreeing with her about the purpose of these details. Willis quotes Joseph Conrad on the task of the writer, which is “before all, to make you see” (p. 46) the story through written words alone. This is an unfortunately narrow view of the purpose or point of writing, and does not take into account anyone for whom mental images are either absent or substantially impaired. Trying too hard to draw a picture in the mind of a reader, or to turn a detail into a symbol or metaphor for the story itself (Willis’s “telling details”, p. 47), can be as bad as not trying hard enough.

Then again, perhaps that’s just what makes details so devilish.

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