A Wild Parade

On March 18, 2020, SilverSky wrote, I’m writing an experimental book where I play with things like gender, age, and the five senses. I’m working on each of these one at a time. I’m almost finished with the gender and age part but, I’m coming up on senses and I’m trying to figure out a balance between writing too many details and not enough. For example, I think too many details would sound like, “I walked into the dark room. I heard the creaking of the floor boards as a large, grey rat ran across the dark oak floor. The room smelled dusty and moldy with a hint of smoke. It was so dusty that I could taste the dirt on my tongue. I placed my hand on a cold, rough table and a floor board began to break beneath me” or is that just enough details? Would it be better to briefly write what I’m trying to say like, “I walked into the dark room. A rat ran across the floor. Everything smelled dusty. I put my hand on a rough table and the floor gave out below me.” Or not?

I guess what I’m trying to ask is, how can you find the balance between too many details and not enough? And, does the book get boring after a lot of details or does it get more interesting?

I know you already answered a few questions about details but I thought maybe you could elaborate on using the 5 senses when writing details.

A discussion broke out.

future_famous_author: I haven’t read a book that went in too much detail in a while… but the book I am reading right now does it in a very interesting way. The author doesn’t usually explain how things look, except characters, but even then only sometimes, but when the character is coming across a new place (castle, house, field, woods, etc.) she seems to explain every detail! While this is a time when details are necessary for the reader to fully understand the story, I don’t think that she should go so in detail with the setting, and then completely forget about other things.
Also, I think that your first example may have been a little too much, but I also think that it could be condensed. Maybe like this: “I walked into the dark, dusty room, smelling of mold and smoke. There was so much dust that it coated my tongue, and the table that I placed my hand upon as a rat ran across the squeaky floorboards. As the squeaking of the rat disappeared, a floorboard began to break beneath me.” I’m sure I’m not any better at description than you are, and there is really no right way, but that’s just how I feel like it should go. Fewer words, almost the same amount of description. Also, if you don’t pile all the description on the reader at once, adding details as a character explores a place, they may be more likely to grasp what you are saying, and to enjoy it.

Melissa Mead: I think the important part is to pick the details that are important to your character. Are they scared of rats? Allergic to dust, mold, or smoke? Is there something special about the table?

future_famous_author: And not just what is important to your character, but what will be important to the plot. Will the rats spread a disease? Will the darkness mean they can’t see their enemy? Does the smoke show that there was a fire, one that killed an important character? Does the dust show that this place has not been occupied in a long time, meaning that whoever they thought might be there is long gone?

Erica: Make sure that all of the details you include are reasonably observable in the situation. For instance, in your first example, you mentioned that the floor was made of oak. Could your character really tell what wood the floorboards were made of in a dark room, or did she already know? Questions like that help me make sure that descriptive details don’t go overboard.

future_famous_author: Oh, I’ve never thought about it that way! That’s interesting!
Also, if your character did mention that it was oak, maybe it’s because she has a past with wood, because a relative taught her what different kinds of wood looked like. Thinking about what a certain character might say about a certain place might help.

Christie V Powell: I’m just throwing in a resource here. I enjoyed “Word Painting: A Guide To Writing More Descriptively” by Rebecca McClanahan. It’s a whole book filled with tips for describing things, and the language she uses, both examples and narration, show that she knows what she’s talking about.

Melissa Mead: I hope it’s ok to throw this in too. I went to HS with the author. He’s a writer, English teacher, and cartoonist, and he illustrated the book with cartoons: https://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Students-Writing-Visual-Vivid/dp/0545147816

These are terrific! I particularly agree that detail supports both plot and character development.

However, these may be less important in a work of experimental fiction than in other literature. Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article on experimental literature: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experimental_literature. Writers of experimental fiction may expect more of their readers than other writers do and may not feel the need to create a page-turner. They may believe their readers will make the effort, to be interested in elements other than plot, character, dialogue, and setting–elements, for example, like language and the unexpected.

Such literature is a bit like poetry. Poets expect their readers to linger over a poem, to let it unfold gradually, some poems more gradually than others.

If we’re writing experimental fiction and playing with the five senses, what’s too much or not enough is entirely up to us, and I’d say that in this case more is better. I like the dirt-on-the-tongue example. If we’re exploring taste, for example, we can keep going. The MC tastes the dirt. How does it taste? Salty? Bitter? Chickeny? Does it dissolve or linger? Does it call up memories of other odd tastes? Think of this as Alice following the white rabbit down the hole of the taste of dust. The dust can taste like the color blue. It can make the MC’s tongue swell–or shrink. It can affect her other senses. She can smell in the dirt its history. Readers can be treated to a geology lesson on the origins of the dirt in the last ice age. A woolly mammoth can appear. Enter the other senses, as the MC looks into the small, angry eyes, jumps on the mammoth for a wild ride, feels its coarse hair, aches from the impact as the beast rears, hears its excited squeals.

We can stretch whatever we like. We can report on the vision of the mammoth, which we make up. Its vision is the sense of sight just as ours is. What would it see if it were presented with an eye chart? Our MC can imagine what she looks like to the mammoth.

And so on. Especially in a first draft, I’d suggest writing a lot. Later, we can decide what should stay. For this, I’d suggest choosing the parts we enjoy. The reader can take it or leave it. We shouldn’t judge good and bad for this (or for anything else, as I often say).

We can also go into the sensory ability of our MC, whose senses can be heightened or reduced. In plot terms, the loss of sensation can call forth a crisis, as may its opposite, a painful intensity. That can be the tension or part of it.

I suspect that sensation is a subset of touch. Or maybe it’s another sense. Please weigh in if you have an opinion. I’m thinking of physical pain or a racing heart or the feeling of fever or sneezing or itching, being hot, being chilly. We can delve into those too. Some of these have an emotional side, but the physical is there too. In experimental writing, we can let ourselves run on with sensation.

If we’re not writing experimental fiction, then the amount of detail does matter, mostly when it comes to pacing. Too much detail will slow things down. Two little, and the reader won’t be able to imagine what’s going on and enter into it. Here too, though, I suggest not worrying much in the first draft. Too much is better than too little, because it’s easier to cut than add when we revise. We do want our details to support character development, plot, and setting, as Melissa Mead and future_famous_author suggest.

Also a sense of wonder if we’re writing fantasy–or even experimental fantasy. Wonder can be introduced into any sense: the dirt that tastes like the sky with a teaspoon of honey and smells like peaches; the floorboards that creak out a song; the rat in tap shoes that gives the floorboard’s song a beat; the wall mold that, when a light is lit, depicts a forest scene.

And, as Erica says, we have to make sure that the details are ones that our MC can experience.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a paragraph on the (imagined) taste of dirt. If you can, write a page. Do not taste anything that may harm you! No poisoning for the sake of art!

• From the POV of the woolly mammoth, write its sensations when the human appears. Write at least a page. If you like, turn it into a story.

• Your MC is in on her way to meet a friend for an important reason–you decide why. On the way, by whatever means of transportation you choose, her sensations go haywire: intensify, fade, play tricks. Despite what’s happening to her, she needs to reach her destination. Write the scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Aaa! Ha!

First, I’ll hearken back to my recent post about poetry. In my final (sob) class of poetry school, we’ve been assigned a textbook that I think may interest people on the blog who’ve caught the poetry bug. It’s Introduction to Poetry by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia–high school and above–very comprehensive. There are a few poem prompts but not many. The value is in the discussion of all the topics in poetry and the selection of poems, from classic to modern. Also phenomenally expensive, so I’d suggest asking your library to get it for you or buying it used. Try to find the latest edition, which contains the most up-to-date poems.

On January 27, 2016, Bookworm wrote, I need help with some things in my novel. I have it pretty much figured out, but the scenes seem to zoom by. I don’t think my MC is really getting enough challenge in some of the scenes.

I also need some help with a side MC. He’s the main comedian, and I don’t have many jokes and puns for him. I could really use some help to get some good puns and jokes. Can you help me?

First question first. Writer of Magic weighed in with, What I would do to make it more challenging is to go through each sentence and see if you need more detail. Example: Her jeans ripped. Or: The seam on her jeans ripped. Blood seeped out. Sorry for the gore.

I’m all for detail, which does more than add length. Detail puts the reader in the scene. There’s nothing like it to increase tension. What do the jeans rip on? How deep is the cut? How painful? Who sees the event? Is anyone there to help? What else is going on? Does our MC–let’s call her Rose–have time to see how badly injured she is? Is she in danger of passing out from loss of blood? If a lot is happening, we can slow down to a kind of play-by-play.

A scene won’t zoom if we present our details through Rose’s head and heart. What is she thinking? Is she worrying about something even more pressing than bleeding? Is she phobic about blood? What’s her state of mind when the injury happens? Is she angry? At whom? Frightened? Sad? Even happy? Maybe cutting her leg solves some other problem for her. Now she thinks she won’t have to spend a week with her despised cousin. She wonders if she can make the injury worse.

Detail also contributes to humor. Rose’s jeans rip, revealing the laughing frogs on the long underwear her mother makes her wear. A dot of blood seeps through the flannel and reddens a frog’s nose. Can she conceal the whole disaster? What can she wrap around herself? A tablecloth! Can she pull it out without disturbing all the dishes, the way they do in movies?

And how might we challenge our Rose more?

We’re always finding a balance between barriers and abilities, locks and keys. Leaving behind the bleeding situation, let’s say Rose is loyal to Queen Lorraine, but a lot of people are dissatisfied with her rule. Attracted by the noise, Rose joins a crowd surrounding a street speaker who’s inciting the mob to storm City Hall, where the queen’s representatives hold sway. The mayor happens to be away, leaving Rose’s mother, the chief constable, in charge with only three guards to help her. Rose decides she has to persuade the crowd not to attack.

Suppose we want Rose to fail ultimately. The Hall will be attacked, which will propel our plot into its next phase. But we don’t want her to fail quickly. We want to make the most of our dramatic situation.

We might consider what Rose has going for her and what her obstacles are, but let’s start with the obstacles. The anger of the rabble rouser is infectious. He’s a good speaker with valid arguments on his side. The queen’s subjects are tired of a war that’s continued for a decade–although she’s been on the throne for only six months. Many able-bodied people have been forced to become soldiers. A promised school in the town hasn’t been built.

Rose thinks the queen should be given more time. If the throne is overthrown, who will step in? Chaos will follow, and the enemy is sure to take advantage. Rose has made this argument to a few friends, whom she’s persuaded to agree with her. Plus, she knows a lot of the people in the crowd, and she’s well-liked.

Going back to obstacles, she’s soft-spoken. No one will hear her if she speaks up. So we start the scene. Rose clears her throat. “Excuse me.” No one hears. What is she feeling? Thinking? Who’s standing next to her? What’s the weather?

We use these details to create a scene with ups and downs and plenty of challenges for Rose. When one effort fails, she tries something else, seems to make progress until some other upset comes along. We end with her the loser, but she isn’t entirely defeated.

Moving along. When it came to jokes, Writer of Magic asked, What era is this? Then I could probably make up some jokes.

Bookworm answered, The era is modern times, but the action takes place in different dimensions. For example, there’s the real world, then there’s Destiny Forest, and another dimension is Musical Hills. There’s not more than one of the MC though, like a doppelganger.

Humor helped poured in.

From Mary:
What type of bagel can fly?
A plain bagel!!!

What’s brown and sticky?
A stick!

Two man walk into a bar. One turns to the other and says “Ouch.”

“A train just passed by here!”
“How can you tell?”
“It left it’s tracks!”

“Did you get a haircut?”
“No, I got all of them cut.”

If you need more try searching Google.

As for puns I find that they work best in the situation. If the character drinks chicken soup they can say it tastes “fowl.” Fish is always really heavy because it has so many scales. Cheese has many “ Gouda” puns attached, and can be “grate” to use. Horses also have many puns attached. (Behooved is a good word, and people can mention neighbors, both of which can be used in many “tales.”) A mention of eyes can lead to many puns, such as “eye see,” mention of pupil(s) (for teachers or students), and complaints that people will always “lash” out. Cars are “wheely” good, and if you’re getting “tired” of my examples Google can help with some more specific examples. I hope this gives you a few ideas!

These are great! I’d just add that a list of homonyms (words that are spelled and sound the same but have different meanings, like bear) and homophones (words that may be spelled differently but sound the same, like plain and plane in Mary’s pun or bear and bare), which you can google, can be helpful for thinking up puns. Heteronyms (words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, like bass, the fish, and bass, the low musical pitch) probably won’t be as useful, because our puns will probably crop up in dialogue, but there may be times when we can use them, too. Of course, some puns are pure inspiration, which can arise only from sub-basement Y of our brains, like the joke about the chicken, the frog, and the librarian, which is best said out loud. If you don’t know it, here’s a link: http://allaboutfrogs.org/funstuff/jokes/lbrry.html. For best effect, sound like a chicken for her lines and like a frog for his (hers? its?).

Here are prompts:

∙ I find it helpful to think of categories when I fool around with puns. So, looking at your googled lists, come up with three puns in each of these categories: food, occupations, and animals.

∙ Remember a time when you were injured: sports injury, clumsy injury (as most of mine have been), kitchen injury–whatever. Not life threatening, because we want to take something with medium intensity and deepen it. Write it and milk it for every smidgen of detail you can dredge up: the moment before the event, how it happened, how it felt and looked, who was there, who said what, what you said and thought, what made it better, what made it worse, plus whatever I’m leaving out. Now move into fiction. Make yourself a character, and make the other people who were there characters, too. If it fits, turn one of them into a villain. By using detail, make this a scene that doesn’t zoom by and that maintains tension.

∙ Injure your MC in your WIP and use some of the moments from your life and your fictionalized version of your life. Write the scene.

∙ Write the scene in which Rose tries to calm the crowd.

Have fun, and save what you write!

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!

Lip stuck in the details

On March 4, 2013 Jasmine Smith wrote, …how detailed is TOO detailed? I mean, I know there are some events that are just not included in stories. Like getting your lip stuck in your braces. Would you tell about that happening to your character? Or does it just not matter?

Along the same lines in the latest post, Bug wrote, When I write, I try to write in as many details as I can. This produces one of three things: a) too much detail; b) not enough detail; c) just right, but this doesn’t happen much. Then again, I’ve had people tell me there is no such thing as too much detail. What do you guys think about this? How do I avoid a) and b)?

And Michelle Dyck replied, Try to have your characters interact with many of the details, in order to mix the descriptions with action. (For example, one character may run her hand along the ugly, floral wallpaper, another may walk across the fuzzy carpet, and a third may sneeze at the dust on the furniture.) I guess balancing the right amount of detail, though, comes with practice. You have to decide what is necessary to draw the reader into the setting and what can be cut out without making the story suffer. You’d be surprised, however, how few details are necessary to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. They can fill in a lot. On the other hand, you don’t want too few details, otherwise the readers might feel they’re floating in a featureless grey cloud.

I agree completely with Michelle Dyck, and I love the idea of integrating detail and action. Action as it occurs in real life is loaded with detail. Right this minute, for example, I’m on the train to New York City, typing on my laptop, in a window seat on the sunny side of the train because they tend to crank the air conditioning up too high and I want the sun to mediate the cold. It’s early in the trip, so the seat next to me is empty. And so on. The conductor just strode past my seat. Oh, there he goes again. I could fill in with myriad other details: the scenery outside my window, the condition of the train, what I’m wearing. It will all get boring very quickly, because there’s no tension. The train isn’t about to derail, I hope. None of these travel details will get us anywhere (oops, pun!).

But in fiction, action and its attendant details are the building blocks of plot. Let’s take Jasmine Smith’s detail of our MC’s lip getting stuck in his braces. (British blog readers: Please post to say if this is also the British term for orthodontia wires on the teeth. If not, what do you say?) I think it’s a great detail! Suppose Martin is about to give a speech at his youth group, a speech he’s practiced for a month, a speech that’s meant to quiet unrest in his village. He’s so badly stuck on his teeth that he can’t speak, and his lips start bleeding uncontrollably. He has to go to the hospital. In his place, his friend Wanda leaps onto the stage to speak in his place, but she’s much less persuasive than he is. In fact, she offends her audience and riots break out.

Wow! A lot comes out of that one detail, when we combine it with the action of trying to give a speech.

Let’s go back and fill in with more details, because so far we have a quick summary. Martin starts bleeding and soaks his tissue immediately. A young woman on his panel gives him her handkerchief to stanch the bleeding. He’s surprised that she has an actual cloth handkerchief, which is delicate and flimsy and not much use. As he raises it to his lip he sees a blue rose embroidered in the corner, the symbol of the secret society for the liberation of mutated foxes. He sees the same symbol tattooed on her impossibly slender wrist, and her eyes, an intense blue-black, bore into his when he looks up.

Lots of detail here, and they all draw us into the gathering plot.

What would be too much detail? Suppose we have Martin look down and see another rose on her ankle. Well, we already know about the wrist and the handkerchief, so the ankle may be overload – unless ankle skin must be kept unadorned by order of the Tyrant.

So detail becomes overload when it piles on what we already know – even if it’s clever, even if we have a great time writing it. We can enjoy ourselves and lay it on thick, but then we need to snip the excess out in revision.

Unless we’re writing humor and the point is the overabundance of everything and it’s really funny and the reader will laugh, or some readers will laugh. Then the more the merrier.

Let’s go back to Michelle Dyck’s suggestions: one character may run her hand along the ugly, floral wallpaper, another may walk across the fuzzy carpet, and a third may sneeze at the dust on the furniture. Our details don’t have to set off major plot events. They can work to set the scene. In this one, we can imagine that three young women are looking at a house they may rent together for their junior year in college. When we bring in dialogue and the thoughts of the POV character we begin to enter the story. June, our MC, hears the sneeze and worries that April may not be able to tolerate Mary’s cat. Someone else can be dismayed that the place hasn’t been kept up. And so on.

The point is that detail, when it’s working well, folds into everything else: character, action, plot. If our detail does that, we’ve got Bug’s option c) every time.

Here are a bunch of prompts:

• Write the story of Martin and his bloody lip. Use as many of my details as you like.

• List three other consequences of a caught lip that could give rise to a story. Pick one and write.

• Pick another of your stuck lip plot possibilities. Make the consequences include one or more of these: the downfall of a civilization, a flowering of the arts, the invention of flying.

• Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger a week after she got her braces. Write the story.

• In a story, make my train derail. Use some of the details that I provided and bring in lots of your own.

• Write the story of the three young woman and the house.

• Use Michelle Dyck’s details in a different story.

Have fun, and save what you write!


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:

dress shop

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!

Describing description

Before I move on, I’ve thought of a few more things to say about chapters: Although no editor has ever commented on the length of my chapters, I have gotten many edits on the length of scenes, usually that they’re too long. And sometimes I’ve been asked to cut a chapter entirely.

About ending a chapter with a crisis, I’ve been asked by editors sometimes to end with the crisis plus my main character’s reaction. Here’s an example:

Tammo said, “As he was breaking free, he said he wanted to crisp fairies most of all.”
Gwendolyn gripped her branch to keep from falling.

A dragon is the he above who wants to incinerate fairies. I could have ended with “most of all,” but I added Gwendolyn’s reaction. I’m not sure which is better. My editor felt that Gwendolyn wasn’t expressive enough, which is a good reason for the addition.

Closing with the obvious: A book doesn’t have to be organized into chapters. There are epistolary novels (novels in letters), in which the breaks come at the end of each letter. Monster by Walter Dean Myers is written in the form of a screenplay. Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl is diary entries. Some books are a hodgepodge of letters, notes, newspaper articles, journal pages. So far, I haven’t written such a book, but I think an occasional bang at the end of a letter or journal entry has to be good.

That’s it for chapters for now.

After my last post, Dream Creator wrote: Also, I was wondering what you thought about the amount of detail in stories. For example, I can have an awful time describing the scenery and what characters look like, and therefore I use a terribly low amount of detail when I’m writing, but the book I’m writing is in first-person and the heroine is far from eloquent, so would that be okay to get away with? Or should I just insert more detail and practice on getting to the point where using detail is much more of a subconscious act? Or is it up to the author, and either extreme is acceptable as long as it is well written?

Everything is up to you, the author. Please don’t listen to me if what I say doesn’t ring a bell. I’m speaking in generalities and don’t know your story or your voice.

But since you’ve tuned to my station, here are some thoughts. They’re just a bit of the huge topic that detail is, so I’m sure I’ll return to the subject in future posts.

Suppose a main character is in her teacher’s living room for the first time. She says that she feels as if she’s stepped into somebody’s grandmother’s photo album – every bit of cloth has a flower or dozens of flowers on it; chair legs wear skirts, and the bare table legs look disturbingly naked, as if they should at least be wearing socks. As a reader, I don’t need anything more than this. I’m willing to collaborate with the author. I can imagine the wingback chair and the sofa with the cloth coverings over the arms and the embroidered footstool. Another reader will furnish the room in accordance with his idea of cozy or fussy, maybe not a wingback chair and the rest, but a grandfather clock and frilly curtains and a tufted ottoman. Readers don’t need everything, just enough to build on.

In fact, everything is impossible. Years ago I did a detail exercise with the kids I was teaching at the time. I brought in something, a simple object, I don’t remember what. All of us (I did too) examined the thing and tried to write as much as we could think of about it. We did the exercise for half an hour and didn’t run out of purely physical description. You can try this yourself. Pick one of your shirts. Describe it in full, exhaustive detail, without even going into how it came to belong to you and what adventures you’ve had in it. You can do that later, if you want to, and write a poem or story about your shirt. But for now, just the facts. The plain physical description won’t be particularly interesting. It’s just an exercise.

If it takes a boring hour to describe a shirt, how arduous and unnecessary to describe a whole room or a landscape! Your reader needs to feel on solid ground, in a real, even if fantastical, place, but you can achieve that in a few strokes. To get to those few, telling strokes, some writers (like me) have to write a lot and then eliminate.

One purpose of description is to let me see the environment my characters are in. There’s a battle in my not-yet-published Fairies and the Quest for Never Land. I couldn’t write the scene until I could see where the fairies were. It’s a prairie littered with boulders, but that wasn’t enough. I had to establish three landmarks: a pile of rocks, a tree, and a petrified log to be oriented. So first of all, description is for me, to get the movie of the story rolling in my head. After I’ve got it, it’s for the reader, to start the movie in his head.

If you’ve got an inarticulate character on your hands, you still need to show the reader what’s going on, but you have to do it through your character’s eyes and voice. Suppose she’s visiting her uncle who isn’t much of a housekeeper. What would gross her out? Show us that–sight, smell, sound, touch. Maybe she’s inarticulate, but she’s tactile. She touches things to get to know them. What does she touch? Or, what would she think her mother, the uncle’s sister, would most disapprove of? What does she have a reason to notice? Suppose she wants to borrow something that belongs to her uncle. What does she see while she’s looking for it?

Description for its own sake is description dragged in by its left ear. It’s necessary but dull, unless it has a reason to exist. Everything is connected to everything in a story. At its best, description should do double duty and serve character development or plot or voice or humor or feeling or something else I haven’t thought of.

Here’s a prompt: Take one of your characters – doesn’t have to be your main – with you today and tomorrow, wherever you go. What does he notice? What does he react to emotionally? What does he miss? What does he studiously ignore? Write about the experience, and save what you wrote. Have fun!