Friday, July 1, 2011

Is Your Shampoo Bottle Upside Down?

By Kristina Wright

(Note: A shorter version of this column appeared on my blog several years ago. I had been thinking about it in relation to texture and writing and decided to expand on my original thoughts.)

Texture. We take our senses for granted on a day-to-day basis—until we lose one of them. And then it’s with a heightened awareness and feeling of loss that we notice everything we’re not experiencing. Burn your tongue on a hot cup of coffee or sizzling slice of pizza and for days there’s nothing there when you eat, no ability to savor the flavor of things you love. Get your eyes dilated—or lose a contact or break a pair of glasses—and be forced to navigate the fuzzy world around you and you discover it’s not only scary, it’s dangerous. Age brings a loss of hearing for some, sometimes gradual enough that it’s not missed too much. But the nuances are gone—that infuriating drip-drip of the leaky water faucet is gone, but so too is the ability to hear a whispered apology or the cry of a baby down the hall.

In writing, texture is that element you may over look initially because it is integrated so seamlessly into the story. You’ll notice the realistic characters, the thought-provoking plot, the dialogue that crackles with emotion, but you may not notice the texture—unless you go looking for it.

The movie Scent of a Woman is remembered for Al Pacino’s portrayl of blind veteran Frank Slade and several visually amazing scenes, including Slade’s sensuous tango with Debbie (played by actress Gabrielle Anwar), his death-defying high speed test drive of a Ferrari on the streets of New York and his riveting speech in front of Charlie’s (played by Chris O’Donnell) boarding school classmates. They’re all brilliantly acted scenes and can be found on YouTube. But none of those scenes are what I was looking for to illustrate my point about texture. I hunted in vain for the one scene that best demonstrated texture for me and how invisible it can be when it’s done right. Of course. That’s how it is with texture—it doesn’t beat you over the head with pretty women or fast cars or fiery speeches—it just is.

In the film, Al Pacino’s character lives with his niece, her husband and their two young children. In one scene, the niece is in the upstairs bathroom, getting the kids ready for bed. When the camera pans back, they look like your average middle class family in the midst of the typical pre-bedtime ritual: hyperactive kids, tired mommy, messy, well lived-in house. The scene is key to the plot only in that it demonstrates that Frank is an outsider in this family, one more burden for his weary niece to bear. It is a part of the framework that leads to his escape and ultimate transformation. But anyone watching the film would likely forget about this small five-minute scene in all the visually exciting scenes that follow. And yet, there is one thing about this onscreen moment that makes it wholly, completely believable. Every time I see it, it makes me think about how I can add texture to my own writing.

In the scene, there is a bottle of shampoo on the ledge of the bathtub. The shampoo bottle is upside down.

Did you just get a shiver up your spine? No? Well then, let me explain.

The set designers did a credible job creating a bathroom that looks like it’s used by a family with small children. Someone—maybe the writer of the screenplay, maybe a prop girl, maybe one of the actors, maybe the director—whomever it was, went one step further in realizing that a middle class family with small children would not have a lot of extra money. The mother would be busy and tired and preoccupied with the kids and her blind uncle and wouldn’t have a spare bottle of shampoo stashed away. She would save and scrape and make everything last as long as possible. Which would mean propping the shampoo bottle upside down on the bathtub ledge so that not even half an ounce of it is wasted. It’s a small detail, but it adds texture to the film and makes the scene—and Frank’s life—more believable.

When something feels off in my writing, I go looking for the metaphorical upside down shampoo bottle. Even if I’m writing pure fantasy, I try to make sure that it’s there, somewhere in the little details, giving my plot the texture it needs to make the reader—and me—believe in what I’m writing. A shampoo bottle is nothing but a prop. But an upside down shampoo bottle leaning in the corner of the bathtub, with the label peeling and shampoo leaking from the not-quite-tight cap? That’s texture. And just like any one of the five senses, it’s not absolutely necessary to have it, but it makes the story so much sweeter.


  1. Oh, what a cool post, Kristina. Funnily, I've been recalling Scent of a Woman lately, and I don't know why. I saw it years ago and don't remember it well at all. I would like to watch it again because I seem to remember my mom liking it—which I think is why we were watching it—and I feel I was young enough to have "missed" a lot of the plot and point of the movie (and also because I find Chris O'Donnell adorable).

    Now I'll know to look for the upside-down shampoo bottle! ;) I wonder if I would have noticed it anyway....

    Thanks for this nuanced exploration of texture.

  2. Hello, Kristina,

    You're a very observant woman. Then, I guess that's necessary in order to be an excellent writer.

    I've noticed the same phenomenon in the work of authors I really admire. There's one telling detail that says more than paragraphs of description about who the characters are or what the story is really about. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that, as a writer, you can make those details appear by will. I think they have to already be there in your subconscious view of the scene - if they are, you can perhaps train yourself to recognize them and bring them to the reader's attention.