December 28, 2011, writeforfun wrote, …the thing that I struggle with the most is detail (how much is too much, when do you use less, when do you need more, what details are good, etc.).
While I reread writeforfun’s question, a public service announcement was running on the radio, advising people about licensing their dogs. It was a very short spot, and then the news resumed. But if the organization that sponsored the ad, the ASPCA or whatever, had the air time, details might have sent dog owners flocking to register their dogs: a hundred signs all over the neighborhood for a lost dog, some carefully crayoned by a seven-year old, the sightings (“I could tell people love her, with that poodle cut on a mutt.”), mention of a floppy ear or an exclamation-point tail, the reunion after eight days of worry, how her collar jingles with a shiny new license, and look how cute it is, shaped like a fire hydrant!
This is detail designed to engage our emotions. Advertising is full of ploys like this. I just looked online at historic ads for cigarettes. Predating the Marlboro man was the Marlboro baby, saying, “Before you scold me, Mom, maybe you better light up a… Marlboro.” Doctors appear in tons of ads. In one, a dentist. In another, Mickey Mantle. If you look, you’ll also find scientists, romantic moments, even a young Ronald Reagan.
Of course we need the right details to get the message across. In a dog licensing promotion, we wouldn’t mention that the missing dog snarls at old people or that, Oops!, her owners forgot to get her her last rabies shot, and we wouldn’t put in anything emotionally neutral either, like that she bites her tail.
If a book or story is theme driven, detail delivers the message. For example, Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty to persuade people to treat horses better. The emotional details make the reader identify with a cast of mostly ill-treated horses. After the book became a bestseller, use of the checkrein was abolished.
We use detail not only to engage emotion, but also to reveal setting and character and move plot along, and sometimes, when we’re really cooking, to do two or three at once. For instance, when Addie is taken to Vollys’s cave in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, we discover that the cave is luxurious. We see carpets, cushions, chests, and wardrobes, and we learn that a former captor was a carpenter. Vollys says that his “remains remain” with her. The cave details show us the setting, but also tell us what Vollys’s taste is, and we’re horrified, and in a creepy way we start to like her – our emotions are engaged.
So how do we pick the details?
We think about the purpose of the scene. In this case it’s to reveal the setting, to continue the introduction of Vollys that began in the chapter before, and to make us afraid for Addie. We don’t want details that will work against these goals. We won’t put anything in that makes us feel better, like we won’t mention the shovel that Addie might use to dig herself out (in the book there is none). We won’t let Vollys say anything soothing.
And we won’t lay it on too thick. Once the reader has seen the scene, has formed an impression of Vollys, has gotten thoroughly scared, we can move on. We don’t have to watch Vollys deliberately incinerate a mouse or Addie count the number of human skeletons. But it’s okay if we go over the top in early drafts. It’s usually better to trim in revision than to bulk up, although we can also add detail later.
When I’m looking for the right details I often make lists. Let’s say Val has accepted a dare to enter a haunted house, and we want this not to be a stock scary house, so what can we do? For starters, it doesn’t have to be a house. What else can it be? I just made a little list:
Each locale suggests a different kind of haunting. I particularly like the museum, drugstore, and airport, because of the variety in each. In the museum, for example, the suits of armor could be jousting. If our character, Simon, gets caught in the wrong spot, he could be skewered. In the next gallery, the Chinese ceramic dragons can spring to life, and, several rooms over, Picasso’s disembodied Head of a Woman can bounce after Simon, clacking her nail-like teeth.
The details we come up with may lead us to discover the reason for the haunting, or vice versa: our knowledge of the reason can determine the details. In the museum example, the haunting might be the doing of a mad art collector who, in life, felt priced out of buying the works she loved. As a ghost, maybe her targets are the new acquisitions, which she believes sold for outrageous sums. Following this thread, who is Simon? Did he merely take a dare, or is he a detective employed by the museum to find out why attendance has fallen off and why more museum goers enter every day than exit.
In Beloved Elodie, many of the characters are suspects, so I use detail to keep the reader off balance about them. For instance, Brunka (defined in the book) Poldie expresses concern for Elodie, who appears ill. A few minutes later, Brunka Poldie is discovered to have stolen three valuable lapis beads.
Sometimes a detail solves a plot glitch. The setting of much of Beloved Elodie is the Oase, a brunka establishment built into a mountain. There are few windows, almost no natural light. People have to shlep lamps everywhere, which get in the way, and sometimes I forget, so I brought in glowworms.
When we introduce details, we should be recruiting all our senses, not merely the visual. Picasso’s Head clacking her teeth is auditory. In Vollys’s cave, the most tense detail is thermal. How hot is it? How much is Addie in danger of boiling? I haven’t mentioned any scent details, but smell goes straight to the emotions.
You can question yourself on your use of detail: Am I making my readers feel an emotion? Am I making them see, hear, smell, feel, touch? Am I making them care? Am I solving a plot problem? A single detail may not produce the desired effect. You may need a bunch working together.
Here are three prompt:s:
• Your villain, who wants people to act a particular way for her nefarious ends, can afford a national publicity campaign. Write a public service announcement putting forward her position on whatever. For instance, maybe she wants to persuade the populace that child slavery is beneficial. Incorporate emotional details that are hard to resist. Write how it works out for her.
• Describe the bedroom of a girl who will one day be the first female president of the United States. If you find it helpful, write a list of possible items to include. Through your details, guide our opinion of her. Write a scene or a story about her early effort to act like a politician. Show how that turns out badly. Keep going.
• Pick one or more of the haunted locales I mentioned above. Describe it. Include all the senses. Begin a story in it. Keep going.
Have fun, and save what you write!