Picky, Picky

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!

  1. Thanks for the wonderful post, Mrs. Levine, it is quite helpful, as I have some trouble with detail. The other day my brother was reading one of my stories and he told me "What does this place look like? I can't tell." This shocked me, because I knew the place backwards and forwards. But when I read it over, I realized that the scene WAS hard to visualize because of a lack of some good, strong, descriptive detail. So I am now reading some authors who I love and analyzing their descriptions. One of my favorites for descriptions is Christopher Healy, who does it so well that I can see everything perfectly, it's like watching a movie when I read his books (I TOTALLY recommend Christopher Healy, he is not only very good at showing things, he is so FUNNY!!! An excellent writer and one of my favorites, after Tolkien, Megan Whalen Turner, Austen and Shannon Hale.) Also, I've been reading Tolkien, who describes everything thoroughly, but his world was so perfectly interesting that you LOVED learning about it. Megan Whalen Turner's details are perfectly placed for the very BEST impact, oh man, her frying-pans-of-surprise are SUPREMELY epic! Austen describes things only a very little, but in a way that gives you a very good picture of them. Shannon Hale's details are poetic and they give FEELINGS to her scenes. Mrs. Levine is good for studying too. Her descriptions are simplistic, but convey a good deal, and are easy to understand. Laura Ingalls Wilder is a very good example of detailing done right, everything she describes is seeable, and not only that, but TOUCHABLE, practically. You can see, hear, touch, smell and taste her descriptions. Hopefully my writing will be easier to SEE now.

    • Ooh, book recommendations. (erm, author recommendations? Did I spell that word right?). I've been needing something new to read. 🙂 I LOVE Tolkien and Austen (in fact, I just read Emma today), and Shannon Hale and Laura Ingalls Wilder, but I haven't read any of the others. 'Cept Mrs. Levine, 'course. 🙂 What have the other two written?

      Another really good author who is great at descriptions and definitely worth reading is L.M. Montgomery. I'm pretty sure she's my all time favourite author. If you haven't read anything

    • Christopher Healy has written "The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom", "The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle", and "The Hero's Guide to Becoming an Outlaw". He's also written one other book that I haven't managed to get my hands on yet, but will do as soon as is humanly possible, because he is the funniest. Seriously, do NOT read his books in bed at night, it is impossible. I have attempted it several times, and it was fairly disastrous, ending up in the book getting confiscated. I laughed too hard, apparently. My father was not as amused as I was, is all I shall say on the matter. Megan Whalen Turner has written "The Thief", "The Queen of Attolia", The King of Attolia and "A Conspiracy of Kings". There is supposed to be at least one more book in her Thief of Attolia series, but the others aren't completed yet. I would recommend her books for thirteen and above, because they do have some swearing in them, but my mom lets my eleven year old sister read them, and she loves them. Which is the rational reaction to Mrs. Turners books, because she is the most amazing author ever. Her style is so perfectly wonderful it is practically indescribable. Not a single word in her stories are wasted. Everything builds up into the surprise at the end (there is ALWAYS a surprise) and it is always artfully done to the very last little miniscule detail! You have to read the books to understand. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Have fun reading. (Oh yes, and I also love L. M. Montgomery, because she has a good style too, but she give a little TOO much detail, and while I don't really mind it, and the stories are all entertaining, it annoys some people [my brother, namely] a good deal.)

  2. This was a really good post! Sometimes I add waaaaay too much detail, and other times I just skim over it. It's something I need to work on. 🙂 I really liked what you said about the reader gaining insight into the characters by what they noticed.

    Elisa, I want to thank you for taking the time to answer my question last week, and I'm really very sorry that I didn't reply and thank you sooner. I've just moved to a different country, started homeschooling, and have been spending a vast majority of my time babysitting my six younger siblings, so I've been a little bit busy. 🙂 Your comment really helped me a lot, thank you. I've always sort of thought that the POV of view had to be through the character who has had the most going on in his/her life, and as you have made me think about it, I guess that that is not necessarily true. Besides, your comment made me laugh. (They usually do…they're always so light hearted and happy.)

    The story that I'm having the trouble with is my NaNoWriMo, and I'm realizing part of the reason I'm having said trouble is because I do not know my characters nearly as well as I ought to, and I don't have the time to just sit down and get to know them, excepting their adventures in the 50000 words. (Which I don't quite have. Yet. )
    Anyway, now I'm rambling and my comment has changed topics three times (at least), so I just want to say thanks a bunch for helping me out!

    • Oy, I feel your pain! This summer we moved to another state, then moved right back within two months, with two dogs that hated being in moving vehicles and each other and staying where they belonged…basically the dogs hated just about everything. And the place we moved into had no air conditioning, and we had to go back and forth between Denver and Cheyenne at least once a week, and we had to take care of our gardens at our Colorado home, and, well, it was a mess. And when we came back, dad redid the flooring in our house, and then we started canning season, and started school during canning season…so basically, I can totally understand. And yeah, we older siblings have it hard. Free babysitting. Ah well.

    • Carpelibris–England! I lived here when I was little (though I am NOT British), so It's really fun to be back here. My Dad is in the Air Force, so we move every few years. I'm actually from the Midwest,though–Nebraska (which, no matter what anyone says about it, is the best state of the whole country. Yes, driving through it is no fun, but I promise that otherwise it's a very lovely state).

      Elisa–your move sounds crazy! Glad to hear that I'm not the only one with hectic life (which, theoretically, I understand, but it's nice to hear other people sympathize, if you get what I mean).

  3. So I'm wondering…how do you make an annoying yet endearing character? I have an MC who is annoyed by everything, but is quirky and funny, and so far my guinea pig readers have liked her. But one of her secondary characters has constantly eluded me; this character is a very self-righteous, bossy, rash princess who is the complete foil of my MC, but so far I haven't been able to write her in any kind of likable light. This is definitely a problem, because she's one of my "Main Crew" as I call my main four characters who appear throughout the series, alongside the main character. I just can't write her–I HATE writing her–she bothers even me! How do I make her bothersome but still likable?

    • Well, make her entertaining, and also, a biggie, do NOT make her stupid if your want her to be both annoying AND likable. Also, try not to make her too mean, if possible. I just cannot endure characters that are passed off as "diamond in the rough" and whatnot when they are mean. That counteracts the diamond-in-the-rough-ishness. (Oops, sorry, pet peeve, I barely managed to stop a big LONG rant right there.) Even if she is bossy and self-righteous and rash, if she has good motives, and does something kind every now and again, she will be more likable. Probably best not to go too overboard with it, seeing as how she is a foil, but subtle. Also, maybe, seeing as how she might be a character that gets pranks played on her a lot (Bossy self-righteous people usually are, I find. I know, I am bossy, and am sometimes self-righteous. but, of course NOT VERY OFTEN! I AM PERFECT! Uh, I mean, I'm susceptible to a few mistakes here and there maybe…) so maybe she shouldn't take pranks on herself too seriously. Or better yet, she could turn the prank around on the prankster in a clever, yet not necessarily mean way. Like Almanzo Wilder did (You know, the fleece up in the loft that hasn't been sheered). That might help a bit. I dunno. I guess I'm kind of rambling. Sorry.

    • Elisa, thanks so much!! I love the prank idea, because that is exactly what this character would do!! All of my characters change throughout the stories (I just love character development), and while I know how I want the character to start and end up, I was having the hardest time making her likable in between the beginning and end! She does have good motives, so that would be a great thing to play on 🙂 Thanks so much! If anyone else has other suggestions too, I'm 100% open to experimenting with different ways to work with this character. 🙂

  4. I have a question: What do you like to see in a heroine? Time after time I've seen the heroines that I like slandered, or the ones I hate praised. I just want to see what others like in a heroine to help give me a broader perspective. Thanks.

    • I like people who are legitimately selfless… read as neither Katniss nor Tris. Both of those people were so selfish that I wanted to kick them in the throat.
      Pretty is over rated. Ordinary is wonderful. If you alternate POVs then it is okay for that OTHER person to think that your heroine is pretty, but she cannot.
      Friends are good. I mean, no one goes through life without friends; especially if you're a girl.
      Please no self pity. Self pity is something else that makes me want to kick a heroine in the throat. Provided, if the heroine is super stressed than they can have a moment or two of self pity. But don't throw it out all of the time.
      Please don't make them perfect. Perfect people are HORRIBLE. They are sticky sweet and false all at once. We don't want to read about a depraved heroine, but a perfect one is worse.
      Keep the romance real. I get that romance may not be a big theme in your book, but with only knowing that you are writing with a heroine… There's a decent chance its there. There should be no instalove. Life doesn't work that way, so books shouldn't either.

    • Resourcefulness. I love heroines who have their back against the wall but find someway to fight. And heroine who come up with a tricky way to accomplish a goal instead of taking the road the reader expects.

  5. Hey, Gail! This isn't really related to this blog post, but I was wondering if you've ever considered adding a "Follow by Email" gadget to the blog layout. I think it's pretty easy to add in the layout section of blogger. That way, people could sign up for updates via email instead of always having to come here to check for new updates. 🙂

  6. Since people were talking about what they like in a heroine… I like reading about people who have a sense of humor. Not necessarily cracking jokes all the time, but able to laugh at themselves.

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