Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Stupid Little Truths

Almost two years ago (Really? It was two years ago already? Yes, yes it was) I wrote about truth in fiction. At that time, it was the poignancy and truth I recognized in the source material of the local high school production of Fiddler on the Roof. The point was that there were large truths about relationships between fathers and daughters, between tradition and change. ‘Fiddler’ works so well because it’s a case of fiction revealing the Truth, and it’s something the best fiction should aspire to.
There’s another kind of truth that can be found in good fiction. It’s one I’m a big believer in. Unlike Truth with a capital ‘T’, I think of these as ‘stupid little truths.’
You know you’ve encountered them–stupid little truths are those small, seemingly inconsequential details in a work of fiction that make you nod along and say, “Yeah, that’s it, right there.” I love it when I get something back from a beta reader and find a comment that says, “That’s so true!” or “You nailed it!” And I love finding them when I’m reading someone else’s book.
Red Hot, Godzilla-sized
New writers are constantly warned not to load up on needless detail and unnecessary verbiage. “Use the fewest words possible,” we’re told. “Keep your word count down. If it doesn’t reveal character or advance the plot, dump it.” All good advice, yet  stupid little truths fly in the face of this advice. Unlike Chekhov’s Gun, stupid little truths may not be especially important to the story, yet like a pinch of salt, a dash of pepper, a few drops of Red Hot they add so much to the story.
One of the masters of stupid little truths is Stephen King. King peppers his work with stupid little truths. I always think of a short, simple quote from Needful Things: “But the real reason he’d gone was the one most bad decisions have in common: it had seemed like a good idea at the time.” The line feels a bit like a throwaway. It’s part of a passage that establishes the character of Alan Pangborn, top lawman in the doomed town of Castle Rock. Is it necessary, that line? No, I don’t think it is. But I also remember the first time I read it, and how it made me smile and think, “Yeah, that’s it, right there!”
Another great stupid little truth comes in King’s massive book, IT. In the opening pages we meet six-year-old Georgie Denbrough, who is tasked with getting something from the basement for his older brother, who is bed-ridden with the flu. Like many six-year-olds, Georgie is petrified of the basement. There’s a scene of perhaps 12 paragraphs in which Georgie does his best to get this thing from the shelf four steps down the cellar stairs. He’s there, clinging to the door frame, fumbling for the light switch, and while the damp smell of basement rises to meet him, his fear of some horrible creature in the basement rises as well. It’s perfect, and it captures neatly an experience common to so many children, though it’s not strictly necessary. It’s a little over one page out of 1100, a handful of paragraphs out of thousands. The Denbrough basement plays no other role in the book, and while Georgie himself looms large as a motivator for his brother’s later actions, he himself will be dead by page 15 (since King tells us this on p. 5, it’s not exactly a spoiler). George’s fear of the basement is not needed; it’s unnecessary verbiage, the sort of detail that we might be tempted to keep out of the book in favor of streamlining and minimal word count, yet it’s a stupid little truth that adds so much to the reading experience. 
Would we miss it if it weren’t there? Of course not. If his editor had said, “Steve, this whole bit here should go,” and King had said, “Yeah, you’re right,”we never would have known. But it’s there, and it enriches the reading experience.
Granted, Stephen King has a lot more leeway than many of us. Still, there’s room for ‘stupid little truths’, and, I think, need. What do you think?
“Hot Sauce, Big & Small” from Jeffrey Krohn’s photostream

10 Responses

  1. I kind of think that Georgie scene set the mood of the story and wasn't necessarily a throwaway. But I do like "stupid little truths." In a way, it cements the relationship between the reader and the writer.

  2. Yes, I love those moments — reading them and writing them. I'm writing in first person right now so these kinds of observations help define my character in ways I can't spell out in plain description. Yeah, they might be extra words, but for me they are like accessories that make the outfit work as a complete look.

  3. Those small sentences in a novel give great insight and make the character move from someone foreign to someone close while I'm reading. Those are what make me care. A novel based only on action doesn't stay with me the way one does when mixed with these lines.

  4. Thanks for your good wishes in L.G. Smith's blog about my cover reveal!

    You're exactly right about Truths and "stupid little truths." It's taken me a long time to figure that out, and I've never been able to encapsulate this knowledge as deftly as you just have. To me it's the necessity of "telling not showing." King is a master of "telling" the personality and backstory of his characters in ways that make you feel like you've always known them. He humanizes them, makes them familiar. But it IS "telling." What you're not supposed to do. So it's proof that "show don't tell" is a lie. Only you really have to master "show don't tell" before you branch out into telling "stupid little truths." I'm trying to do that now, since it works so well, but coming up with familiar generalities and tropes that make people smile and nod isn't easy… Great post!

  5. I'm glad you found something useful here, Lexa, thanks for commenting.

    I think the scene with Georgie is showing, not telling. And sometimes, you can tell in order to show (just like you can use several stupid little truths to build up to Big Truth). As you say, the key is to know the rules so you can break 'em, and remember that rules are guidelines. If we followed all the rules of writing to the letter, we'd end up with a hot mess on our hands.

    Good luck with your book!

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