Wednesday, March 2nd, 2005 • 3 Comments on The Devil is in the Details
In the movie Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino’s character lives with his niece, her husband and their two kids. In one scene, the niece is in the upstairs bathroom, getting the kids ready for bed. When the camera pans back, it looks like your average middle class family bathroom in the midst of the typical pre-bedtime ritual of hyperactive kids and tired mom in a messy house. The scene is not key to the plot but there is one thing that makes it wholly, completely believable and every time I see it, it makes me think about my own writing.
In the scene, there is a bottle of shampoo on the ledge of the bathtub. The shampoo bottle is upside down.
Okay, I’ll explain.
The set designers did a credible job creating a bathroom that looks like it’s used by a family with small children. Someone—maybe a prop girl, maybe one of the actors, maybe the director—whomever it was, went one step further in realizing that a family with small children in a middle class neighborhood would not have a lot of extra money. The mother would be busy and tired and preoccupied with the kids and wouldn’t have a spare bottle of shampoo stashed away. She would save and scrape and make everything last as long as possible. It’s a small detail, but it makes the scene real.
When something feels off in my writing, I go looking for the upside down shampoo bottle.* Even if I’m writing pure fantasy, I try to make sure that it’s there, somewhere, giving my plot the realism it needs to make the reader believe what I’m writing. The upside down shampoo bottle pulls the reader in, makes him feel like he understands something about the characters. It makes the reader
with what the characters are going through, even if he’s never experienced it himself. If I forget to put in the shampoo bottle, it means I need to go back and take another look at what I’m trying to accomplish. If I don’t believe what I’m writing, what reader is going to believe it?
*I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, but that would be an interesting stylistic signature for a writer to use.