—Stephen KingWhen it comes to writing, the devil is definitely in the details. As King argues, the key to making your readers believe, feel, relate, or care is specificity. Inexperienced writers can get caught up in the grandeur of big ideas, but the truth is, it's that narrow slice of life, that concrete image, that small, small thing that brings life to writing.
The statement that a character is tall--worthless. The scabs on his knuckles from where he scraped his hands on the ceiling when he yawned--that's the stuff.
But we can take the importance of detail one step further. Any skilled writer knows that making a piece come to life requires a deep dive to bring back plenty of specific details that appeal to the reader's five senses. But a master knows how to go one step further and use--the uncanny detail.
A Useful Definition
I use the word "uncanny" rather than "striking" or "original" because there are aspects to this word I think we should keep in mind whenever we search for the right detail to reveal something about our characters, their settings, or our plots.
Merriam Webster defines "uncanny" as "a: strange or unusual in a way that is surprising or difficult to understand" and "b: being beyond what is normal or expected, suggesting superhuman or supernatural powers."
Both of these definitions are highly useful for the writer's purposes. Finding a detail that is strange, unusual, and surprising to the point where it challenges initial understanding is what can make writing resonate with something magical. No matter how closely a piece clings to realism, that uncanny detail can make the piece resonate with an almost supernatural verisimilitude, making the whole thing more real and more relate-able for its very strangeness.
As an example, I present my own attempts at uncanny details in "She Falls Down," a short story about a woman with a strange feinting disorder originally published in 2008. When the narrator describes his girlfriend's condition in the opening of the story he says:
"She falls down. Whenever I kiss her. Whenever I ask her where she's been. Whenever she sees Mr. Miyagi nod at Ralph Macchio in the last scene of The Karate Kid."
The first two details are fairly conventional, but it's that third that reaches for the uncanny. Imagine how much less meaningful, memorable, and just plain real this would sound if the last line were simply, "whenever she hears a sappy song."
Completely expected, the line would whiz right by the reader without making an impact. But Ralph Macchio and Mr. Miyagi? That final scene in The Karate Kid? Now the reader has to slow down and consider the woman being described as not just a type, but rather an idiosyncratic, unconventional--all of which translates as real--person.
Similarly, when the narrator describes the bruises the woman gets from constantly falling, I reach again for an uncanny detail to ground one of the more emotional and lyrical moments in the story:
"The bruises scatter across the back of her head, her neck, her thighs, her shoulder blades. They become constellations of our emotional life one week at a time. Each purple blotch is a memory. This is the argument over the fact that my mother still buys my underwear. This is the gentle kiss I placed on her throat last week. This is the time I told her I dreamed we were old and married with six children, one five years old, slightly retarded, and unable to pronounce 'Mom,' so instead she called her 'Mush.' "
The entire excerpt speaks in the language of detail, referencing not just a fight and a tender moment but an "argument over the fact that my mother still buys my underwear" and a "gentle kiss" on the throat, but neither of these go anywhere all that unexpected. It's the final detail here--the mention of a dream that includes a mentally handicapped girl who calls her mother "Mush,"--that introduces the unexpected, the slightly jarring, the uncanny.
My purpose here was to undercut the emotion of the moment. But it's more than just a gimmick, a comic moment providing counterpoint. By reaching for that uncanny detail, the moment--which has the danger of becoming pretentious--becomes more grounded in reality.
For me, the take away is clear: More unexpected, more strange, more uncanny = more real.
Don't Get Too Clever
But be careful, strangeness for its own sake leads to its own kind of pretension. You must always ask yourself whether or not the uncanny detail for which you're reaching resonates with something essential about your character or your story. If it doesn't, it's likely to come off as the writer simply trying to out-quirk the competition.
If done well, the uncanny detail heightens the sense of reality, hiding the writer and the very act of writing behind fully fleshed characters. If done poorly, however, it does the opposite, calling unnecessary attention to a writer waving at the reader and shouting, "look how clever I am."
But don't be afraid to reach for the uncanny detail when you write. You can always put it to the test and make sure your detail really works, but if you don't reach, you'll never find it.
What Say You?
So what do you think? Can you find examples of the uncanny detail in your writing, or in the books of writers you admire? Is uncanny just not the right word for the best kind of detail in writing? Or is this whole uncanny detail just a load of bunk?