Coming off a hugely frustrating weekend of writing, in which I ended up deleting hundreds upon hundreds of words that seemed cold and lifeless upon the screen. After much thought and a few of these, I figured out a big part of my problem: In an effort to make the story more vivid, I was layering on minor details that coalesced into one huge confusing mess. That, of course, is not the master’s approach—quality beats quantity when it comes to narrative details. ‘Tis better to have a single, booming anecdote than lots of ancillary descriptions that are thrown against the wall in the hopes that they’ll unify into something worthwhile.
A great example of the master’s approach is a detail used by Mark Bowden in Killing Pablo. Whenever I mention this book to folks seeking non-fiction recommendations, I invariably bring up this passage, which does a better job of conveying Escobar’s complex combination of lunacy, malice, and megalomania than articles that have droned on for thousands of words:
To entertain his closest friends, Pablo would hire a gaggle of beauty queens for evenings of erotic games. The women would strip and race naked toward an expensive sports car, which the winner would keep, or submit to bizarre humiliations – shaving their heads, swallowing insects, or engaging in naked tree-climbing contests.
It isn’t just the strange abuse of power that gets to me here; it’s the creativity of Escobar’s sadism, the way in which he took such great pleasure in seeing Colombia’s paragons of beauty laid low. A reporter less enterprising than Bowden could surely have dredged up some anecdotes about prostitutes or strippers, the standard vices of the fabulously wealthy and amoral. But beauty queens forced to climb trees while naked? Say no more—I get where this Escobar cat is coming from, and I fear for the safety of anyone who crosses his path.
(Image via Colectiva)