Anton Chekhov remarked that a story is “the casual telling of a nuclear experience in an ordinary life, rendered with immediate and telling detail.” Edward Bulwer-Lytton may have fallen from literary grace but admit it: “a dark and stormy night” sets a tone. His novel, Paul Clifford, might as easily have ridden into view on a description of the highwayman’s breeches. Clothes are details too, perhaps even as purple as Bulwer-Lytton’s prose, but would the pants have set a mood? In this instance possibly so, but I digress. There’s a difference between detail and telling detail. A cook could serve fresh tomato slices with a sprinkling of milk and flour. But if she chooses olive oil, basil, balsamic vinegar and salt instead, the tomato comes alive on the plate.
The inclusion of telling detail is, as Chekhov suggested, a basic skill for fiction writers. Perhaps it’s a dusty road, an ominous crow, a smear of birthday cake on a child’s cheek. Or a detail may recur and build over the course of a narrative to take on plot significance, as wars have a tendency to do in historical sagas. Less commonly a telling detail may have a life of its own but never directly impact the foreground of a piece.
An iconic instance of the latter occurs in a 1965 video of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The alley setting is a static, telling detail. As Bob drops cue cards a man in the background speaks to someone off camera. Only after the song ends and Bob leaves does the bald man pass close to the lens. Allen Ginsberg? Ginsberg would later describe Beat culture’s relation to Dylan by quoting President Kennedy: “the torch has been passed to a new generation.” His video appearance is a showing of that.
World’s Fair, E. L. Doctorow’s evocation of a Bronx childhood, takes occasional note of the rise of Hitler and Fascism. Though World War II is still on the horizon at novel’s end, these references set Doctorow’s story in a wider context and provide a counterpoint to the gleaming World of Tomorrow envisioned by the fair.
George Orwell gets triple duty from the perpetual war in the background of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Oceania acquires a smidgeon of global context. We glimpse its ruthless efficiency in the pursuit of war as a full-employment strategy. And the shifting alliances with Eurasia and Eastasia introduce the concept of doublethink. Comrades in Big Brother’s England are required to believe that today’s enemy has always been the enemy, even if memory disagrees. Doublethink is the mental gymnastic that O’Brien will later impress upon Winston Smith in the course of torturing him. If the Party says so, 2+2=5.
Graphic novelist Alan Moore frequently employs dynamic—shifting or evolving—detail in his work. The in-your-face comic aesthetic makes his use of these techniques easy to spot. Scattered throughout the Promethea series are advertisements for comics starring Weeping Gorilla, a sad sack who embodies cultural exhaustion. The pathetic atmosphere is reinforced by an ongoing bit about the pop band Limp. Song lyrics include “She made me feel a total failure, her boyfriend stepped on my inhaler.” Weeping Gorilla and Limp are only tangentially related to Promethea’s quest. (The best friend of Promethea’s newest living incarnation is a Weeping Gorilla fan. The girls attend a Limp concert where a fight breaks out with a pair of demonic assassins.) A third peripheral drama involves the mayor of New York City. His multiple personalities go on strike, forcing him to resign from office. The cumulative effect of these details is a more nuanced impression of the city than might otherwise be expected in a comic book. Moore’s NYC is an idiot relative to be met with humor and humanity, not hate.
Narrative counterpoint lies at an ambitious end of the dynamic detail spectrum. In Moore’s Watchmen, only a sidewalk connects the surface story to the comic-within-a-comic commenting on it. A random kid sits reading Tales of the Black Freighter beside the news vendor patronized by several Watchmen characters.
Watchmen begins as a murder mystery and morphs into the tale of an ex-superhero who saves the Cold War world from nuclear war. He achieves this by faking an alien invasion that intentionally kills millions, including old friends. This supposed planetary threat causes the United States and Soviet Union to shelve their differences and join forces. Readers are left to question whether the mastermind’s success transforms villain to hero.
The embedded Tales of the Black Freighter is visually distinguishable by its use of Ben-Day dot color technique. A sea captain washes ashore on a desert island, the sole survivor of his ship’s destruction by a ghastly freighter. Fearing that his hometown is the pirates’ next port of call he lashes the bloated bodies of former shipmates together as a raft and sails for home. He arrives at night, crazed by exposure and convinced he’s too late. He beats his wife to death in her bed before realizing she’s not a pirate. Undone by best intentions he wanders down to the bay and finds the black freighter resting at anchor. It hasn’t come to sack the town. It was waiting for him. He swims out to it and is taken aboard as the hell ship’s newest crewman.
Watchmen and Tales of the Black Freighter interact as wholes and also at the level of individual frames. Some Freighter events add spin to actions occurring in Watchmen. The news vender unknowingly offers meta-comments on the Freighter text.
If narrative counterpoint is a complex form of dynamic telling detail, Watchmen demonstrates a rudimentary form as well, an image dynamic only in the sense that it gets around and is variously constituted. The opening scene features a bloodstained smiley face button. It later appears as a Martian crater. In the book’s final panel a ketchup-stained smiley face wishes us well from the t-shirt of the tabloid magazine assistant who’s about to discover the Watchmen story in a pile of crank submissions. (Will the revelation that the alien attack was a sham undo the new spirit of cooperation between the US and USSR?)
The range of possibilities for dynamic detail may be easier to appreciate in comic books than traditional forms of fiction but seems no less applicable there. While metaphorical equivalents of the dark and stormy night remain mainstays of telling detail, why should writers limit themselves to the straitjacket of the single-serve image? Might it be more effective, once in a great while, to endow a promising detail with a life of its own?