Detail: Yep, That’s Where the Devil Is
Fiction relies on the suspension of disbelief, the appearance, or the semblance of truth. Writers must convince you that the people and places they’ve dreamed up are as real as you are.
To do that, writers rely on detail; familiar, relatable, and evocative details.
Now let’s say I wrote that scene. I like it so much that I read it again. I know better, but sometimes I give in to the voices and this time…
Maybe I should lose the kitten…don’t want readers thinking about cat hair drifting into the skillet…what if the bacon pops the kitten? It’ll yowl and leap off Donna’s shoulder, then Donna will yowl because those tiny claws are wicked sharp…the kitten goes flying one way, the spatula goes flying the other…maybe the skillet goes flying too, and…
That is the devil. And this is where he lives—in the details.
I’m convinced solely to drive writers crazy, though he does occasionally poke readers with his stabby little pitchfork. Example: In a book I read a couple of weeks ago, the author wrote that a pit bull had teeth like bacon.
I couldn’t picture that. I still can’t. It yanked me right out of the story.
That’s the power of details, and why writers spend so much time and care getting them—fingers crossed—just right.
How do you know when you have the details right? When you have enough, when you need more, when you have too much?
Here are six tips I’ve put together over the course of sixteen novels and two novellas. They aren’t foolproof—nothing is in writing—but they’ve helped me beat back the devil.
Tip #1: Most important detail first.
Detail points readers to what you want them to see, what you want them to know, and what you want them to remember.
Here’s the #1 thing I want to stick with readers—Donna is alone. No spouse or boyfriend, no kids waiting to be fed. Only a kitten.
Tip #2: Use sensory detail to draw readers into the story.
The sensory details in this scene are familiar to most readers: bacon frying, the sound of rain, and the kitten’s purr.
If this were a game of Scrabble, bacon would score triple points—you can hear it, smell it, and simply by inhaling you can taste it. The human brain excels at storing and remembering sensory detail.
Tip #3: Don’t overwhelm readers.
Don’t give them too much to look at all at once. They won’t remember all of it. Space out your details.
Tip #4: Layer details and build on them.
For instance: There’s a handful of overdue bills in a magnetic clip on Donna’s fridge. I’ll show them to readers when she takes out the last of the milk to put in her coffee, a dollar store instant brand. She smells it to make sure it hasn’t soured.
I began with the overdue bills. I didn’t show the empty shelves when Donna opened the fridge I showed the milk, Donna smelling it, the jar of dollar store coffee because they’re subtle and I don’t want to overwhelm readers.
Sensory and descriptive details help readers visualize the people, places, and things you’re writing about. Detail also helps readers move through the story as easily as your characters.
Some more details I could work into Donna’s scene:
A worn linoleum floor that squeaks when she carries her dishes to the sink, chipped green paint on the cabinets she wishes she could afford to paint.
The plastic saucer she fills with the last of the milk—she added just a splash to her coffee to cut the bitterness. She puts the saucer on the floor for the fluffy white kitten she named Blackie because he was filthy when she found him in the crawlspace under her house.
Readers will hear the floor squeak when Donna leaves the kitchen for her bedroom. The double bed is made with thin muslin sheets and a faded quilt. Donna puts on her pink waitress uniform, ties on her thick-soled black shoes, brushes her brown hair back into a net.
There’s a framed photograph on the single nightstand of a firefighter in full gear. A chain draped over one corner of the photo holds a gold band like the one Donna wears on the third finger of her left hand. She kisses her fingertips, touches them to the photo, and heads out for work.
Tip #5: Details describe and details inform.
Now readers know why Donna is alone except for Blackie, the reason for the overdue bills, the dollar store coffee, the last of the milk. She’s a widow. The photo implies her husband died in the line of duty.
Tip #6: Details establish mood and tone.
Donna is not in a happy place. The rain, her dingy house, the bare fridge reflects that. Every aspect of her life—a tough, low wage job, bills she can’t pay amplify it. I added Blackie to give her a smile now and then, a bit of relief from her grief and sadness.
Readers know those things about Donna and her life because I showed them in details. I had a picture of her in my head, her life and her situation. I carefully selected details to show it to readers rather than tell it to them or beat them over the head with it in emotionally overwrought narrative.
The details did it for me. And that is their real power.
Writing involves choices. Word by word we can harness the power and magic of words. Let’s make the most of our writing choices with today’s post.