In July, this question came from Leah on the website: What is the right kind of details? Which details are important and which not so much?
I talk about this in Writing Magic, so if you have the book you may want to look at Chapters 8 and 20. For now, let’s start with what a detail is, which is slippery, like most matters in writing.
I’d say that a detail is any snippet that conveys information. Sometimes whatever that is may not seem like a detail. Suppose, for example, our MC is Candace whose birthday is today. Her mother comes into her bedroom to wake her up, bearing a big gift-wrapped box. Candace sits up, smiles, and carefully removes the wrapping paper. When she opens the box, she meets her mother’s eyes and says, “Beautiful.”
And the reader sighs with relief and thinks, Whew! Finally.
I’d argue that, if it was set up well, the word beautiful is a detail even though it tells us little about what’s in the box, even though this word is often a generality. The word’s success as a detail depends on what went before. Imagine that Candace’s fourteenth birthday in her world is the day she has her Admission Ceremony, when she becomes a full-fledged member of her clan, but she suffers from self-doubt and a need to be perfect in every circumstance. In the close-knit clan, the mental state of every full member affects the entire community, and the elders, who wouldn’t dream of holding Candace back, are worried that her anxiety will infect everyone. Candace has been working on her serenity, but until now she’s made little progress. However, when she pronounces the box’s contents beautiful, the reader understands that she’s changed profoundly.
If the reader already knows what’s in the box, the effect of the word is further strengthened. It’s the ceremonial robe, and it has a small brown stain in the otherwise creamy linen. The stain was made on purpose to reveal Candace’s frame of mind when she sees it. That she calls it beautiful despite the stain demonstrates that she’s truly ready to become a clan member (or that she’s lost her eyesight! Just kidding.).
On the other hand, if beautiful is pronounced in the first sentence of our story, the reader will have to wait to discover the significance of the word, and if that significance is never demonstrated, then it will remain vague and won’t work as a detail.
When we write, we want to create a movie in our reader’s mind. Part of the movie is established through the scenery, the setting, although we can’t ever describe everything. Even the attempt would exhaust us and bore the reader. We wield an authorial spotlight. When Candace’s mother enters the bedroom, we have to decide what to reveal. Maybe we want to illuminate the box with its star-patterned wrapping paper and the ribbon that curls like confetti, and her mom’s hands on the box, nails neatly trimmed, clear polish, the thumb callus that’s characteristic of her occupation, whatever that is. Or maybe we want to show her mom’s expressive face, where her inner peace combines with pride at her daughter’s accomplishments. Mom’s expression may add to the reader’s worry that Candace will shatter the clan’s calm, regardless of the other benefits her joining will bring. Or maybe we decide to pan across the untidy room, with clothing and books scattered about, reflecting Candace’s emotional state when she finally collapsed into bed at 2:00 AM.
We’re guided in our choice of detail by our need to advance plot and develop our characters. The details that do neither may be unnecessary. Take the gift wrap paper, which may shed light on Candace’s mother’s love for her daughter, but if the reader already knows all about these feelings, this particular detail may not be needed. Secondary considerations can come into play, too. We may decide that the gift wrap detail helps create a mood or establishes the setting. The reader almost certainly doesn’t have to be told what the ceiling looks like or whether the desk lamp uses a seventy-five watt bulb or a sixty–unless either is going to come into our story.
Detail can be presented in dialogue, narration, and thoughts. We’ve seen it operate in dialogue, when Candace says, “Beautiful.” She can say more, too. She can go to the window, pull aside the curtain, and add in a satisfied voice, “Beautiful again. I wanted a sunny day.”
There is a danger in conveying details in dialogue, however. If Candace and her mother discuss something they both know, the dialogue is likely to sound staged. For example, if Candace says, “I hope I don’t trip on the way into the Meeting Chamber,” and her mother answers, “The stairs are very steep,” well, she probably wouldn’t say this, because they both know what the stairs are like. The one she’s really speaking to is the reader, and there are better ways to convey the information: in narration or in thoughts–if the steep stairs are important.
But, aside from that caution, dialogue is a great vehicle for detail, because along with the facts conveyed, the reader also gains insight into the speakers: what they notice and how they express it. Same with details relayed in thoughts. Through what Candace notices, for example, we learn not only the details themselves but also more about her character. Candace, in her nervous state, may be extra aware of things that appear threatening. Let’s imagine her in a park with her friend Vergil. She notices how thick the bushes are and thinks that a whole battalion of soldiers could hide behind them. He says something about the family of ducks and ducklings in the pond. She answers, “They’re cute. I didn’t even see them.” The reader gets a double dose of information.
A few words about sensory details: We tend to neglect senses other than sight. Sound, smell, touch, and sometimes taste are also important. Imagine a seaside scene, for example. It won’t come alive without the sound of the surf, the wind on our MC’s cheek, the weight of the sun in summer, the smell of the ocean. If our MC sticks out her tongue, she can taste the salt.
Here are four prompts:
• Look around the room you’re in right now. Pick a detail– anything–and make it the focus of a story.
• Use the sixty-watt light bulb as the central detail in a story. Write the story.
• In Fairest I gave the magic mirror in “Snow White” a back story. Write a version of “Sleeping Beauty” in which the spinning wheel that delivers the soporific pricking is more than it seems.
• Write Candace’s Admission Ceremony, and make it the beginning of your story, so it does not go well. Deliver details through dialogue, thoughts, and narration. Include all sorts of sensory detail.
Have fun, and save what you write!