Character arc in the short story often depends on how the writer employs descriptive detail — certain techniques illicit certain effects, and the external circumstances which the character faces often determine the amount of concrete and abstract detail necessary. To truly render the emotional undertones of a scene, the writer may use concrete detail to spring into the abstract, and vice versa, weaving back and forth from the concrete portrayal of looks, behavior, and surroundings to ground the scene and propel the action forward. In her story “Revelations,” Katherine Mansfield uses the most crucial, necessary specifics of both concrete and abstract details in building seemingly inevitable resolutions to her characters’ dilemmas.
As Monica enters the hair dresser’s shop, Mansfield transitions from the preceding paragraph of exposition, where we get Monica’s thoughts on how the shop usually is, and that she feels she is her “real self” there. Thus, the first and second lines contain more abstract language to capture the internal: “But to-day — how curious! Madame hardly greeted her.” Now able to move further into the external, immediate scene, Mansfield renders concrete visual and auditory detail with her next descriptions of Madame’s looks and behavior: “Her face was whiter than ever, but rims of bright red showed round her blue bead eyes, and even the rings on her pudgy fingers did not flash…When she called through the wall-telephone to George there was a note in her voice that had never been there before.”Mansfield could continue giving us more detail, but in order to maintain the effect of “revealing and concealing,” she chooses to sprinkle the details throughout the rest of the scene. In her next line, she moves to a handful of observations and Monica’s reaction as she as digests them, and so the language Mansfield chooses is more abstract: “But Monica would not believe this. No, she refused to. It was just her imagination.” Because Monica’s internal reaction to the dismal external reality is to refuse her observations, and she clings to her lofty expectations of the salon visit, her subsequent actions organically follow her pattern of thinking. Continuing to give us Monica’s reaction in the abstract vein would be superfluous; next, Mansfield returns to the concrete to give us a precise picture of Monica’s reactive looks and behavior: “She sniffed greedily the warm, scented air, and passed behind the velvet curtain into the small cubicle.”
As Mansfield builds toward the climax, she does so in a way that continues to force Monica to internally face her external reality. The wind blows outside and George doesn’t come, making it more difficult for Monica’s thoughts and emotional state to remain the same. First Monica notices her jacket and hat still hanging on the peg, a sign of George’s delay, and the quietness of the shop. Then Mansfield launches into the abstract: “Monica wished she hadn’t come. Oh, what a mistake to have come! Fatal. Fatal. Where was George? If he didn’t appear the next moment she would go away.” This paragraph uses concrete details of surrounding and behavior more sparingly, allowing us more insight into the transformation of Monica’s thoughts and their effect on her behavior. The external circumstances force a response. Monica removes the kimono, her “fingers trembled,” and Mansfield decides to use this opportunity of detailed, concretely shown tension to turn inward, revealing information the reader needs to know as the protagonist’s inner state launches into flux. “There was a tugging feeling at her heart as though her happiness — her marvelous happiness — were trying to get free.”
In the ensuing sequence of events, the external circumstances wholly determine Monica’s reactions. George appears at the last minute, so Monica gives in to carrying through with the appointment. Mansfield focuses several lines on George’s appearance, and here demonstrates that the portrayal of characters, how they observe and react to one another, does not necessarily have to occur in the concrete-to abstract-back to concrete pattern of revelation. Probably since the most recent lines dwell on the more abstract, internal workings of the protagonist, Mansfield’s description of Monica’s reaction to George’s awful appearance start with her inward reaction, use less descriptive language, and move outward: “How queerly he smiled!” (she must validate her observation); “It was the mirror of course” (she tries to refute it immediately). She turns around and is forced to greet him face to face. Now Mansfield moves outward and forces Monica into the more specific details of reality: “His lips curled back in a sort of grin, and — wasn’t he unshaven? — he looked almost green in the face.” Where before Mansfield tells us he simply “smiled,” here we are shown his smile is not so simple, but fraught with turmoil.
On the micro level, the degree to which Mansfield describes a particular look or a gesture depends on its purpose, the emotional weight it must play out in the story. For instance, the second to last paragraph of “Revelations” begins, “George took a brush” — a description of simple action. However, the ensuing line in which George reveals the death of his child (the story’s climax) Mansfield intensifies by coupling this delivery with the playing out of his gesture in more concrete detail: “And then suddenly he raised himself and, looking at Monica, gave a strange wave with the brush and said…” This maximizes the emotional effect on Monica in the scene and directly contributes to the overall effect of “Revelations.”
Mansfield chooses her details from varying degrees of specificity to the more general depending on the natural progression of events as they unfold. Had she failed to make such deliberate choices, not only might her stories struggle to achieve the same poignant epiphanies at the end, but her character arcs might meander rather than unify. Her balanced technique of interweaving from the internal to the external, and vice versa, pausing to focus on the most significant, revealing behaviors and thoughts of characters at the precise moments, allows the stories to resonate to their utmost potential.
Vanessa Blakeslee’s latest book, Perfect Conditions: stories is the winner of the Foreword Reviews’ 2018 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award for Short Stories (Gold), the 2019 IPPY Silver Medal for Short Story Fiction (Silver), the NIEA (Gold), and was a Chicago Tribune “Summer Reads” Pick, among other accolades. Her debut novel, Juventud (Curbside Splendor, 2015), was hailed by Publishers Weekly as a “tale of self-discovery and intense first love.” The book earned high praise from the Jewish Book Council, the LA Progressive, Bustle, Washington Independent Review of Books, the Rumpus, the SIBA Award/Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize, to name a few. Her story collection, Train Shots (Burrow Press) won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and optioned for a feature film. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, The Paris Review Daily, Publishers Weekly, The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among others. She has been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, Writers Omi, The Banff Centre, the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and many more. She teaches writing at Rollins College and serves on the Board of Directors for the Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project of Orlando, FL.