Sometimes when terrible things happen, I find myself focusing on the smallest of details. As the world grows more chaotic around us, with shootings and mass murders and suicide-bombs becoming more commonplace and us becoming horrifically desensitized to their frequency, I have been thinking about this quite often. To consider the great loss of life can be too much, but to focus on one, much smaller part of the story makes it more bearable. I read through an article of all the victims of terrorist attacks in the past six months. There were hundreds of profiles and it was devastatingly overwhelming. Somehow, the news articles that profile one story – one person, or one couple – are manageable and can still express the entire horror of what occurred.
When you don’t know where to start – start small. Start with the small details. Start with the moments that can, at first, have nothing to do with the great and terrible thing that you are having such difficulty expressing, but which are integral to the very essence of the story. I have forgotten the quote and it’s author, but I once read that to write about war, we should start by describing the young child’s shoes that have been abandoned in the road.
In the novel I am currently writing, the narrator has lost her older sister, who has been her only mother figure and best friend that she has had for many years. Uncertain of how to open with the death of her beloved sister, I was finally able to begin by writing the story by doing so about her sister’s despicable cat, which most definitely should not have survived when the sister did not, but whom was something that could be focused on despite the tragedy, and whom could lead us to the root of what was bothering the narrator.
This idea of focusing on the small things has remained with me ever since. Sometimes the smallest moments can say the most about a large issue. As writers, we have to be able to identify what story can express the entirety of what we have to say about a topic. When the reader cannot immediately connect to or sympathize with the grand tragedy, they may be able to immediately attack to the small details. These small things break the ice. They allow for us to discuss terrible things with being overwhelmed.
I once thought that it was ridiculous that every story has to have a message, but it’s true. Whether you begin the story with a specific message in mind, or the message simply develops while you write it, it is important that you identify what the purpose of your story is. What are you trying to say? How does each scene and character and interaction and – yes, the smallest of details – contribute to the message? What does a pair of shoes or a cat or the color of your character’s nails have to do with what you are trying to say? How can the seemingly unimportant become a vital piece of clockwork in your story?