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Jeruba's avatar

Can you remember a specific piece of advice on writing that made reference to the stain on a motel room wall?

Asked by Jeruba (50403points) March 27th, 2012

This might be a hopeless quest, but there’s a bit of Quixote in my soul.

Somewhere, sometime, years ago, I read an article or chapter on the craft of writing that talked about selectivity of detail. The article used as an example the depiction of a motel room in a detective story written by a well-known author. The only detail described in the story was a brownish stain on the wallpaper.

The article writer explained how the selection of that one telling detail gave us a sense of the decayed appearance and seedy character of the motel room without having to go any further. The point was to choose the one right detail instead of shoveling out quantities of unnecessary information.

If you recognize the article I’m thinking of, can you please suggest where I might find it?

Thank you.

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11 Answers

SpatzieLover's avatar

I haven’t read the article you’re speaking of @Jeruba. But from your description I am wondering if the article was about James Patterson in regards to his book 4th of July.

Patterson does many interviews on how to write, which also leads me to think of him.

CWOTUS's avatar

The only thing your hoped-for quote reminds me of is the one from Chekov that I’m sure you know perfectly well already: “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, then it must fire by the third.”

I wonder if there might be a direct relationship there?

janbb's avatar

I’m thinking of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore but I don’t know if that’s it.

Earthgirl's avatar

The wallpaper reference made me think of the film Barton Fink by the Coen Brothers.
“One critic notes that Barton’s fixation on the stain across the ceiling of his hotel room matches the protagonist’s behavior in the short story “The Enduring Chill” by author Flannery O’Connor.”
Could that be the story you’re thinking of?
More here and here

Jeruba's avatar

As I said, this is probably hopeless, but I just had to ask. Thanks for all efforts on my behalf.

@SpatzieLover, I know it can’t be that because I’m pulling this memory forward from two or three decades ago. The Patterson books are too recent. Not that he mightn’t have given some similar advice.

@CWOTUS, there is a distinct resonance there, but this is different. The article writer was showing how one single well-chosen detail could stand for a lot of others. Using the short story (I think it was a short story) as an example, the article writer was saying that there’s no need to mention the threadbare rug, the faded bedspread, the dripping faucet, or any of the order sordid particulars; given this one nasty-looking wallpaper stain, we can see the whole room.

I am working with a client who seems to feel that it’s to his credit to put in every last detail of everything. His descriptions are mercilessly exhaustive. He is trying manfully to respond to others’ calls for concrete sensory detail, and he doesn’t get the idea of selectivity. I thought of this long-ago-read article, with its memorable example, and wished I could show it to him.

@janbb, that was some wallpaper, all right, and that’s one of the creepiest stories I ever read, but no, it wasn’t that. I feel pretty certain that the context was a detective peering into a motel room, and the story author’s telling us all we needed to know about its appearance by just describing the stain.

@Earthgirl, Barton Fink is much too recent too. The story being discussed might have been old enough to be O’Connor’s. But what I am after here is not the story itself, but rather, an article about writing that cited it as an example.

The article could have been in The Writer magazine, which I used to read faithfully in the 1960s to 1980s.

This whole question is a long shot, but I have seen flutherfolk pull out some pretty amazing answers from time to time.

Bellatrix's avatar

@Jeruba, if you find it perhaps you can share the title/author. I could actually use such a story in a course I convene.

WestRiverrat's avatar

The most memorable description of stains on a wall that I remember from my reading comes from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. But that wasn’t a motel.

anartist's avatar

sounds noir-ish like Philip Marlowe. Or later noir types like Elmore Leonard or Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder novels.

I know it isn’t Oscar Wilde’s reputed dying words, “Either that wallpaper goes or I do”
And he died in what was once a sleazy hotel with sleazy wallpaper that is now swanky/touristy
from find-a-grave “In a note of irony, his famous death bed quip about the wallpaper in his room at the run down Left Bank Hotel, D’Alsace pension house; the wallpaper has now joined Wilde and is gone. The hotel today called L’Hotel is a plush four star establishment and Wilde’s room has been especially refurbished with vibrant blue-green frescos and commands a pricey amount to spend the night. ”

There was an Agatha Christie or Marjorie Allingham or Dorothy Sayers story where the wallpaper changed color like litmus, providing the telltale clue of the poisonous vapors in the death chamber

CWOTUS's avatar

As I juggled and googled some of the phrases and words of your question, I came upon this interesting British study of American ‘hard-boiled’ detective stories, which also included the quote below (having nearly the opposite meaning of the one you offered) which works nearly as well in its way:

The carpet almost tickled my ankles. There was a concert grand piano closed down. On one corner of it stood a tall silver vase on a strip of peach-coloured velvet and a single yellow rose in the vase…. It was the kind of room where people sit with their feet in their laps and sip absinthe through lumped sugar and talk with high affected voices and sometimes just squeak. It was a room where anything could happen except work.

The rest of the essay was pretty interesting, too.

As a side note, without using the words in my search, a lot of the results that the search gave me included references to “hard-boiled” detective stories. Curious.

Jeruba's avatar

Sure thing, @Bellatrix.

@WestRiverrat, and this stain wasn’t blood. Otherwise…

@anartist, noirish, yes, I think it was. Interesting sidenote about Wilde.

@CWOTUS, thanks for the searching and the digression. I like the quote.

Maybe the question should be changed to “Can you think of an example in fiction where a single well-chosen detail evokes an entire scene?”

dappled_leaves's avatar

@Jeruba It sounds like the sort of thing that would be found in noir fiction – maybe a Raymond Chandler short story?

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