‘You Had One Job’ a lesson in focusing on the detail

posted in: Writing Advice | 1

writing detail fiction storyHere is a story I love for its attention to detail: “You Had One Job,” by Scott Brown. I heard it while listening to a “This American Life” podcast on the theme of “once more, with feeling.”

It’s a reimagining of this actual news story, in which a Dallas police department used a bomb defusing robot to kill a sniper. Brown tells his story from the point of view of the robot, using a first person perspective that’s rich in all the right details. It’s a beauty of a story – the robot’s detachment provides a perfect foil for the high-stress emotions raging around him. The robot’s ability to record but not always understand the nuances of the situation around him allows for a neutral, distanced tone. Yet, because of a surreptitiously installed AI program, the robot can feel and his feelings get sharper and more thoughtful the deeper we go into the story. That emotional build is spot on, with light bits of humour keeping an otherwise heavy subject buoyant.

What I love most about this story is its commitment to specificity. Brown stacks his story with details. This might have flowed out of his sense that a robot would document and record every detail, that its eye would see differently than ours because of its innate objectivity. Whatever the reason, it really works.

Here’s an example:

I have one arm, because my job only takes one arm to do. And I only have one job. I like my job so much. The other officers at precinct nine don’t know I like it. They don’t know I like anything.

I like them, though, especially my operator, Officer Brian Parisse, who the other officers call Gamergate, Indoor Kid, and Tech Support, and whom I called Brian, but not out loud, because I can only say three things out loud– “Stay Back 1,000 Feet,” “Follow Officer’s Instructions,” “You are in the blast zone.”

When I’m not doing my job, which is most of the time, I’m in the break room. I’m supposed to be in the vehicle bay, but someone thought it would be funny to put me in the break room, next to the coffee machine wearing a Carolina Panthers hat. The hat is to differentiate me from the coffee machine.

He doesn’t just overhear Brian being called names, he lists them. He doesn’t just have a vocabulary of three phrases, he tells us what they are. He’s not just wearing a hat he doesn’t like. He’s wearing a Carolina Panthers hat.

Those details work hard to tell us rather than show us what this robot’s life is like – where he is and what he does and who he works with – and they help establish the sense that the robot is actually far more compassionate than the clowns he works with.

Later, when the robot (named MILES) enters the apartment of the sniper:

Ropes of colloidal explosive have already been molded around the hinges of the door. The charges blow. The door falls down. Ah, a 60-gram lead carbine round fired from a semi-automatic rifle has lodged itself in my right anterior prehensile tread. I raise the damaged tread, take it offline, keep going.

I know the loss of this tread will make descending the front stairs later more difficult and increase the likelihood of embarrassing images of me ending up on the internet. More rounds are striking my cowling, demanding my attention. I call out, “You are in the blast zone.” The unsecured ordinance answers, “No shit.” I realize this is funny, but I’m not sure at whose expense.

I move toward the unsecured ordinance, hand outstretched. Brian is with me, seeing through my one eye and saying, it’s all right, MILES, it’s all right, in Andros, and also playing our favorite song, “Solsbury Hill,” by Peter Gabriel. The eyes of the ordinance are unseeable under goggles that say Carolina Speedway, and only his nose is visible through a makeshift balaklava he has made out of a dark blue Duke three-peat commemorative hand towel.

Again, that commitment to detail. We are right there with the robot, seeing what he sees. It builds believability that the robot would record with utmost precision what’s happening second-by-second. We surface from that detached view for the personal moment of the inadvertent joke. Then we go right back to the rich details. They help us connect. They help us put ourselves in the robot’s place. And they’re telling us things we need to know about the sniper, to give emotional weight to what’s about to happen next.

Detail often makes a story. It shows that the writer has really thought about their subject, that they’ve achieved a certain mastery of the topic and a certain comfort with how the story unfolds. They know what’s needed where and have found a way to write the details so they add to the story’s scaffolding, not just window dressing.

On your next pass through, take a look through your manuscript for places where you’ve been vague and ask whether more detail would help. Look for sections that seem to lack energy – adding in a few well thought-out details can often electrify the writing. Try not to go overboard – this story works because the character is one we expect to catalogue detail. Instead, try to identify places where a little research and noodling around with the details would help show rather than tell, would help build character or would help deepen the plot.

To hear the story – which I highly recommend – visit This American Life.

(Photo courtesy of Kaboompics)

One Response

  1. Karen Florek

    I just heard “You Had One Job” read today on This American Life and it stopped me in my tracks. I was mesmerized. One thing that struck me was the portrayal that morality remains fixed. We humans are flexible, but Miles is programmed with a set of co-ordinates that, if changed, change over time. He resists. He himself is “trying” to understand why a human would ever be expendable. What an amazing reinterpretation of mechanistic thinking.
    Scott Brown is very savvy at creating empathy in the least obvious character. The detail is shared in a most objective way, even the aftermath, where he describes the fallout among all participants, including Miles. It made me reconsider the price we all pay for an ever moving gauge of what is right.
    I also loved the bittersweet attempt Miles makes at a “high five”. That level of detail is priceless.

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