- Webster’s New World Dictionary
tex-ture n. 1. visual and especially tactile quality of a surface: rough texture. 2. the characteristic structure of the interwoven or intertwined threads, strands, or the like, that make up a textile fabric: coarse texture. 3. the characteristic physical structure given to a material, an object, etc., by the size, shape, arrangement, and proportions of its parts: soil of a sandy texture; a cake with a heavy texture. 4. an essential or characteristic quality; essence.
As you see, we associate the word more with weaving or touch, but I apply it to the writing process with two distinct uses: details that enrich and enliven a setting or story; and to define an essential or characteristic quality to a story.
When we say ‘the devil is in the details,’ we’re not usually being positive, rather, that our magnificent vision floating effortlessly above the earth can swiftly get shot down when we have to apply practicalities to it. But in the context of writing, detail provides the texture to make an okay story great. And it’s something in our attention-deficit plagued world that often receives short shrift, which is an enormous shame. (To say the least. Don’t get me started.)
You can actually tell a story very quickly, if you want. In fact, I use exercises of that sort with my classes. One involves taking a story --- or film, because it works with that, too --- and boiling the plot down to 15 or 20 statements, cutting everything but essentials. Another gets them to take a novel and summarize it in 50 words, then doing the same again... in 15 words. Funnily enough (almost counter-intuitively), most have more difficulty with the 50 than with the 15. Why? Because 15 words allows absolutely no wiggle room. You must be very economical, or you’re not going to make the count. (Not unlike the 140 characters you have when tweeting, but on steroids.) Complete economy of scale is imperative. But with the 50 word summary, suddenly, you do have wiggle room. Not a lot, but enough to start asking questions: what to leave out? What to include? Ah, the torturous choices!
However, in both exercises, texture is, of necessity, gone. What you’re left with is a desiccated corpse, the skeleton of a story without any fleshing out. It’s a terrific way of honing the ability to summarize (an essential life skill)... but an awful way to tell a story.
The printed medium demands texture in a manner that the visual does not. In one sense, film is really a lazy way of getting a story, because all the creative decisions have been made for you. What do the characters look like? Settings? Atmosphere? Everything’s there. It’s limiting. (For example, I thought Sir Ian McKellen made a terrific wizard in The Lord of the Rings films... but it’s hard after that not to see his face every time I read about Gandalf in the book.) But that problem is not applicable to stories. Your imagination has to paint the picture. To do that, it relies on the texture the author provides in the narrative. (I mention to classes that, when I’m reading, after a while, I don’t even see the printed words on the page anymore. My eyes are obviously taking them in, but in front of them is a vivid picture constructed by my imagination from the words given me by the author, and that’s all I’m aware of seeing. Sometimes I’m met with knowing nods... but all too often these days, though, I’m met with blank stares of incomprehension. Sigh. Don’t get me started. Again.)
Texture is adding details that may not directly contribute to plot advancement, but that’s not necessarily wrong. Think of the entire Tom Bombadil segment in The Lord of the Rings. Think... wait a minute. Did somebody just ask who that is? Out, illiterate barbarian! Yea, verily, we cast thee into darkness! (Even as you’re feebly protesting that you watched The Lord of the Rings, thereby unwittingly revealing that you committed Cardinal Sin #1: You Watched the Film Without Reading The Book. First.)
Tom Bombadil doesn’t contribute much to moving the plot forward, but when I mentioned this to my editor, he pointed out, quite rightly, that Tom’s presence is active character development for the world of Middle Earth. That more than meets both definition and justification of texture. The description of the Old Forest... the River Withywindle... the hot, humid afternoon by a brownish, torpid river, willow leaves floating down... that is terrific texture. If your imagination cannot take that and paint a vivid mental image of that scene... and the hobbits in panic as they discover Old Man Willow’s menace... Tom’s careless arrival and nonchalant response to the threat posed... then, my friend, you have my pity.
However, like everything, texture is about balance. Aye, there’s the rub, isn’t it? Including enough detail to make the story fascinating without cramming in so much that the narrative grinds to a halt under a bewildering barrage of adjectives, tangents and opacity. How can you tell whether there’s too much or too little texture? Ah ha. Through what I call the Goldilocks Factor --- applicable to many things, but not really quantifiable and therefore extremely irritating to the more literal-minded. (The literal-minded also tend to be imaginatively challenged, he whispered a touch condescendingly.) If the Goldilocks Factor is in play, then it’s Just Right. Not too much. Not too little. Just right.
But how will I know? you whisper in exasperation. (And you may have a point, I concede, because such knowing seems a vanishing skill among all ages nowadays. Gads, what a depressing thought.)
However, trust me, if you have any sense of writing at all, you will know. Because the story’s exuberant eloquence will give us the details we need without hindering the telling... the story will flow like a sparkling mountain torrent...
...you’ll know it...
...and more importantly, so will your readers.