We care about the edges. When we approach a hole, the most important thing to know about it is its outline. That way, we don’t fall in. Our eyes use a process called “lateral inhibition.” The cells increase contrast between light and dark, making those edges even darker than they actually are.
I always think it’s interesting to consider how other subjects compare to writing, how different vocabularies can transfer and blend. In this case, maybe we can consider how to focus on the edges in our writing.
One moment, one description, can define a larger part of a character. A part illustrates the whole. And the most important part of the (w)hole is the edge. So when writing details, we must think about what why that small piece of information is so important. What does it bring out, what theme does it bring contrast to?
Another way to think about it, consider the clique “tip of the iceberg.” You tell your reader one thing, but that one thing has all this important information underneath. But you don’t want that one thing to be a random point along the iceberg. No, you picked the tip. And that says you’re paying attention to what you’re writing.. We can look at subtext in this manner. There’s a great lettuce moment in Alice Munro’s “Miles City, Montana” in which the story’s couple discusses lettuce on sandwiches, but the underlying truth is the tension in their stranded relationship. This adds complexity, layers. You’re showing instead of telling. Of course, there’s a lot of problems with phrase “show, don’t tell.” I think we can tell. We just have to tell the right things, tell enough so that we don’t fall in the hole. Or if you’re telling, think of how those images you’re creating can complicate the characters and their situations.
Our eyes are in motion. Small eye movements refresh our view. They stop desensitization. If our eyes never moved, through for example the process of retinal stabilization, images would shrivel into one shade of gray. We don’t want our stories to be uniform. We want them to change perspectives, put stale objects in motion and refresh our view of the world. It can be as simple. Make sure your sentences aren’t all the same length. By varying them, you keep the reader thinking; help them try to define the shape. Make patterns. Break patterns.
In George Saunder’s essay “Rise, Baby, Rise” he discusses Donald Barthelme’s story “The School.” When talking about rising action he says, “Barthelme is going to fling us forward via a series of surprises; each new pattern-element is going to be introduced in a way we don’t expect, or with an embellishment that delights us.”
Surprise. Embellish. Delight.