Ask Me a Question, I’ll Tell You No Lies

Here’s the truth. Sometimes at the end of a story, either fiction or memoir, we lie. Without meaning to, we withhold the truth by turning away from the particulars of the worlds and the people we’ve put on the page. Which is to say we lie by being lazy; we lie by being abstract. We try to let general statements do the work more rightly done by concrete details.

Imagine, for example, what a weak, untruthful ending James Joyce would have had if “The Dead” had ended with the line about Gabriel’s identity “fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.” Thank goodness that the story continues with the snow tapping on the window and the haunting images of that snow falling “all over Ireland.” The image of the snow falling on the grave of Michael Furey allows us to feel what Gabriel feels—how diminished he is:

It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of   the little gate, on the barren thorns. His [Gabriel’s] soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Joyce tells the truth by anchoring his character, and by extension us, in the authentic world of details, in a world of snow tapping on window glass and falling over the churchyard, gathering on the crosses and headstones and the gate and the thorns. We feel Gabriel’s emotions more deeply because of these details.

Often, all it takes is for someone to ask us the right question to get us to see where we’ve fallen short of the truth, where we’ve lied by omission. This happened to me lately. A good editor asked me whether the last line of a story was redundant, and that question invited me to take another look at the end, and I understood that I’d relied too  heavily on the general, abstract statement. What did it mean when I said my main character was scared now because of what he’d lived through in the narrative? I went back and found the specifics—the sight of his wife’s ornate handwriting on an envelope; his children’s’ bright voices when they were at play; the image of Depression-era men, their backs curved over fires in oil drums, their hands cupped to the breath from their mouths—the concrete details that now show how the central event of the story affected my main character forever after.

So here’s a quick exercise. Take a rough draft and find the places where you’re making general statements and ask yourself a question. My question, for example, was, “What do I mean when I say my main character was now scared?” Find the concrete details that answer the question. Then weave them into the story and see if now it’s possible to eliminate the general statement that gave rise to the question.

In writing, we tell the truth by paying attention.


  1. Clay Cormany on October 30, 2017 at 10:48 am

    I see your point, Lee, and agree with you, but I must add a caveat. As an editor, I have seen writers make the opposite mistake. That is, they will go into great detail describing a setting, a character, or an event that is not all that significant to their story. They will use vivid adjectives and similes to give us a picture of a character who soon vanishes from the storyline. Or they will give a similarly vivid description of a house, or a room, or a backyard that could have been shortened without cheating their readers. I suspect that Joyce, like all great writers, knew when to use concrete details to be “honest” with his readers and when such details would only make them impatient.

    • Lee Martin on October 31, 2017 at 12:43 pm

      Absolutely, Clay! It should go without saying that detail just for the sake of filling space will always be extraneous. We have to think in terms of how the detail is both containing and expressing the characters’ emotions or the relevant atmosphere. Thanks so much for your comment!

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