Cornerstones of Excellence: the Art of Detail

One of the most elevating aspects of writing is the use of detail.  It marks voice, it shows attention and care, and it can be quite elegant. The main reason to cultivate the powerful use of telling detail in your own work, however, is that it is transportive for the reader.  Our goal as fiction writers is to remove all barriers to the reader experiencing the story in the purest, truest way possible.  Detail is one of the most important ways we do that.

All fiction is created from detail, of course.  Scenes, characters and plots are created out of single molecules of detail that create solid experiences.  Unfortunately, a great many stories are crafted from overused, exhausted, bland details, placeholders that do nothing to set the work apart.

A couple of months ago, I participated as faculty in a Writing Away Retreat in Breckenridge, where a collection of very talented writers showed their work to a panel of people working in the field—writer, agent, editor, poet.  We all read the works and met with the writers individually.  Afterward, Jeff Kleinman, agent at Folio Literary, suggested that we offer some exercises on how to build character, because in nearly every case, the thing missing from the work of these writers was a sense of depth.  Our exercises ended up being nearly entirely about character, and focused almost entirely on detail.

I read a lot of material on a regular basis. I can’t say I remember a lot of material from that weekend (with a couple of exceptions), but I clearly and strongly remember a piece Jeff wrote about being happy in Italy, riding a horse at sunset through long grass.  It was thick with detail—details of light and the Italian setting and a sense of time.  It lingers with me, several months later.

The purpose of good detail work is to create that sense of compelling recognition in the readers, to anchor and make memorable whatever it is that you are writing about.

How do you do that? In general, the telling part of telling detail means it is unique, or at least unusual. It’s fresh and new.  It stands up and captures a moment, a character, a setting in a way that cements it for the reader.

Most of all, it is specific, related to exactly the time, place, character and emotion of this very second in your book.  It will create recognition, sometimes visceral emotion.  It will elevate your work as nothing else possibly can.

To find those remarkable details, you must begin by opening your eyes to your world every day, every moment. Pay attention to what people do, how they gesture, what their eyes do when they are happy and when they are lying and when they are gazing upon the face of someone they love.   Pay attention to the details of the way people dress.  A baggy pair of khakis worn with a pair of glittery sandals is not the same as a baggy pair of khakis worn with a pair of scuffed boots or white socks and earth sandals or a pair of high heels so battered that the covering has worn away from the heel, showing bits of plastic beneath.

That last detail, the worn high heels with baggy khakis, suggests a lot of story to me. I’m already building a story about this girl. I think she’s skinny and young and doesn’t have any money.

To observe those details, make a resolve to yourself to keep your nose out of your Smartphone when you are in public. Stay present, look around.  If you are a notebook sort, scribble notes. Maybe shoot photos of intriguing details.

Another thing: read poetry. Poets instinctively capture snapshots of time and life in their words.  I’ve found a lot of value in beginning my work day with a poem. I’m currently on Mary Oliver and Leonard Cohen, but you can surely find others that you’ll enjoy.   Pay attention to the work you are reading and see how the author approaches detail work.

Mostly, you probably need to go deeper.  Deeper, deeper, deeper.  You should know everything there is to know about your characters and your settings.  Study botany and fabric, read biographies and talk to people who do the work your characters do.  I once spoke with a man who worked with raptors, and every time he said the word “hawk,” he looked at the sky.

I spend days on character interviews and research before and during the writing of a novel. By the time I get ready to polish a manuscript for the final time, I can walk through a bathroom or bedroom of a character and see exactly what they’d have on the shelves, whether they’d leave clothes on the floor or dishes in the sink.  I should know how to shop for them (and have, unfortunately, shopped AS them) and what the response to almost any question would be.  In my settings, I know where things are located, what matters, and try to illuminate those things that will make things live for my reader.

How do you decide which are the compelling details? In the MIP, I was trying to convey my enchantment with free-wandering chickens at an organic farm.  The think I kept remembering was the glossiness of the hens’ feathers, their lack of fear. I worked it into the manuscript early on, setting scene, and also character when a resistant person meets the chicken for the first time. I was enchanted by the feathers on those birds, by the friendly way they clucked along with us, and if that enchants me, it will probably be sometime my reader enjoys as well.

If you can’t figure out what details are the most compelling, you can write long lists of them to find the most astute.  Another way is to write a lot of detail, then cut back and cut back and cut back until you have the spare bones of a Truth.  A great Facebook post can do this.  Romance writer Eloisa James Facebooked her year in Paris that way.

I also loved this from writer Nick Belardes this week:

“Cowboy at Tantra Coffeehouse who was telling some gal his mentor is some reincarnated Spanish Conquistador who roamed South Texas, mute for twenty years with a leather pouch. “He wants ta meetcha,” he told her. Her: “When?” Him: “I dunno. Could be tomorrow. Could be a week. He appears when he appears.”

Vivid, right?  I know it’s the West. That we’re dealing with eccentrics, that this is a particular culture.  When we see the picture, it reveals the fact that I am correct–that’s the photo I’ve used to illustrate this blog.  Rich, isn’t it?

How can you make those details live in your work?

Spend some time this week noticing how writers you admire use detail.  Pay attention to the way you are using it in your own work.  Are some types of detail easier to manage than others? Is it easier to create settings or characters? Do you have any tricks you’d like to share with the rest of us?

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.

Comments

  1. says

    I’m not detail-oriented, so it’s a huge struggle for me to get any details into what I write. I can’t get them in at all while I’m creating — otherwise, I’ll spend hours on a single paragraph while I try to force my brain into left brain mode as the right side protests madly.

    What I’ve ended up doing is discovery writing, where I write off story — no plot, nothing happening. Just describing setting without the story redirecting me away. I can do research to dig out specific details, add the five senses, just spend a few days doing everything I can think of. Then I can return to the story and use what I wrote to bring details into the story.

    As a reader, in critiques, I have to tell people that if they’re too subtle with the details and require me to draw a conclusion, I will miss the details entirely. I’ve been startled out a story by a detail that referred to another one that I didn’t notice, and I’ve not gotten entire stories because the writer assumed I would pick on the details. So when you write details that are essential to understanding of the story, make sure you think of people like me.
    Linda Adams – Soldier, Storyteller´s last blog post ..Guest Post: Liv Rancourt on Five Tips For Writing Fight Scenes

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  2. Linda Pennell says

    Enjoyed the article! Unlike the first commenter, Linda Adams, I have been accused of sometimes being too detail oriented. Describing in detail allows the imagination to soar and many opportunities for turning a nice phrase, but I guess there can be too much of a good thing. Thank you for helping us to see how to achieve balance in this area.

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  3. says

    Thank you Barbara, I loved this piece. I’m going to pass it along to my beta readers. Writing with the correct balance of detail and movement is my daily challenge. I am constantly accused of adding too much detail (some of my readers say they don’t care what a character wears or what a room feels like—just move it along) but I think it makes all the difference in the world. When I read, I want to linger over a character’s pot of sauce, smell the hint of sage and undertone of nutmeg, feel the heat from the stove. I don’t just want to read “she cooked dinner.” My love of setting and detail often draws me to lush Southern writing—those writers know how to immerse all your senses in their world.
    Kerry Ann Morgan´s last blog post ..In Case You Missed It

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    • says

      I’m pretty sure most of us don’t want “she cooked dinner.” We don’t have to know every ingredient in every dish, but the cooking itself can be used as a way to tell the story. What a character notices, and how it shows up in the narrative is also part of the storytelling process.
      Barbara Samuel´s last blog post ..Craving

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  4. says

    Your advice to turn off the phone and pay attention is well-heeded. I love to people watch and eavesdrop. Normally I’d say this is rude, but now it’s an occupational hazard.

    I find, when I’m reading, too much detail can drown the story, but not enough leaves it arid. The art, of course, is a balance so I can create the movie in my mind but remain focused on the action. Now to just implement it all!

    I’m a Colorado mountain gal. Hope you enjoyed Breckenridge–it’s a lovely area!
    Julie´s last blog post ..Stephen King Wants My Heart

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    • says

      I don’t think it’s rude as long as we’re not out and out staring. Which I’m afraid I’ve probably done more than once.

      I love Breck! I live in Colorado Springs and we go up there a lot.
      Barbara Samuel´s last blog post ..Craving

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  5. says

    This resonates with me, Barbara. I need to do much more to provide the visceral feel of setting or situation and the innumerable character ‘tells’ that are available like your high heel with the cover torn off. They can give away characters better than paragraphs of description or history. Good subject well presented.
    alex wilson´s last blog post ..Playing ‘what if…?

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  6. says

    Great advice! I think the challenge, though, is what Kerry Ann and Linda mentioned: balancing the detail with the action. It’s important to know when the reader wants (or needs) to be immersed in the experience through detailed description and when to “move it along” so they don’t lose interest. There’s a time and place for description and heavy exposition, just as there’s a time and place for dialogue and action. Too much of any element makes for a homogenous, tedious tale. Balance.
    Brea Brown´s last blog post ..Thankfulness

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    • says

      Detail is not just in the descriptive or narrative phrases of a work. They are in the choices of vocabulary, in the choices a character makes (coffee or tea or triple mocha whip? jeans or slacks? Call a friend or suffer through. Hovering hand over a phone because he wants to call a friend and can’t?). It is in the choice of what you show and what you leave out.

      Action and movement also include tons of telling detail.
      Barbara Samuel´s last blog post ..Craving

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  7. says

    There were so many wonderful nuggets of widsom in here, Barbara! I, too, am very detail oriented, but the trick I’m still learning is how to make those details work in “single molecules of detail”. I tend to dump a lot of description on the page – and it’s hard to tell myself “yes, you MUST get rid of this slow pan over the dresser top” because I am in love with every detail. The key is to know why that detail matters, what it says about my characters instead of embellishing for the sake of painting flowery but empty pictures in the reader’s head.

    And this is going into my file of writing mantras: “cut back and cut back and cut back until you have the spare bones of a Truth.” Gold!
    Jillian Boston´s last blog post ..AIL Day 77: verglas

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  8. says

    Barbara,

    Your topic is exactly what I’m dealing with in my next revision. Plot and dialogue are easy for me, but using detail–just enough, not too much–worked into the narrative, not dumped like a lump–that’s my challenge.

    Lately, besides observing the world around me and doing additional research, I’ve been re-reading novels written by masters of detail, pencil in hand!

    Thanks for reinforcing the importance of this skill.
    Christina Kaylor´s last blog post ..The Many Hats of Elizabeth Anderson, Part 1

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  9. says

    I find that writing flash and micro fiction forces me to find the telling detail, the strongest word, the most powerful description. When you only have 100 or 25 words to tell a story, you better use the best. :)

    In my works in progress, I let myself overwrite – go all purple prose! – and then whittle it all down during the revision process.
    Madeline Mora-Summonte´s last blog post ..Motivational Monday

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  10. says

    Barbara, what you are saying is so true. Those specific details make all the difference in the world. I also love your advice about putting away your smart phone and observing people and making notes. It is so easy. It is research that is right in front of us all the time. I must re-read this post before I dive back into my NaNo novel. Thanks for a terrific post.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..NaNo Update #4: I Made It! No, Wait. I Didn’t.

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  11. says

    One of my bad habits is staying in my own little bubble. I need to get out more not because it refreshes my soul but also because it refreshes my writing. Thanks very much for that reminder!

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  12. Ray Pace says

    It’s unfortunate that when you turn off the smart phone and look around these days, you see a lot of people absorbed in their smart phones and other cyber devices.

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  13. says

    I love this post. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. You always have the most memorable details in your books and your stories stay with me for a long, long, time.
    I’m also one of those writers who love detail, setting, description, and have yet to learn how to trim it to get the right sensory detail without overkill. This hit home for me:

    Most of all, it is specific, related to exactly the time, place, character and emotion of this very second in your book. It will create recognition, sometimes visceral emotion. It will elevate your work as nothing else possibly can.

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    • says

      We all struggle with the balance between too much and too little, Robena. I used to overwrite terribly, then went to journalism and learned some spareness, but still can err on the side of too many details.

      Practice, practice, practice.
      Barbara Samuel´s last blog post ..Craving

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  14. Denise Willson says

    Great advice, Barbara.

    I’m one of those wackos who doesn’t want a cell shackle, i tracker, etc. I’m a watcher of people…some might even call me nosey. I aim to use all my senses: smell, sight, touch, taste, hearing…and a few of my own freakshow senses thrown in for punch. I scribble them on endless notepads.

    Try it sometime. Even if these moments never find a way into a manuscript, you’ll be better for it.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  15. says

    I know I’m going to be way down at the bottom of the comments list, but I just had to let you know that I loved, loved this article. I even took notes, and made sure I quoted the words “compelling recognition” and “to anchor and make memorable.”
    Your article on detail was so detailed! It was absolutely lovely.
    Thank you again for sharing your time, knowledge, and experience.
    Laura Lee´s last blog post ..Crunch time, baby

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  16. says

    Details was something that have always fascinated us. While growing up we read the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. The author had written these books originally for blind children, and thus his stories were always very colorful and vivid. This can be especially seen in the way he described food! So good were the details on savory dishes, gooey deserts, and sumptuous repasts that we invariably found ourselves hungry while reading these books! Brian Jacques was truly a master of detail, and this inspired us to do the same when we wrote our first novel.
    DZ Posca´s last blog post ..The book trailer for our novel!

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  17. says

    Well done, Barbara, and so true. In my editing and blog, I often run across descriptions that are abstract or just plain vague (I detest the use of “some”). My counsel is that specifics (detail) are what create a reality in the reader’s mind. Many thanks.

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  18. says

    Thank-you for the advice, Barbara. I’ve often said that when I “grow up” as a writer I want to write description like you do!

    I have been writing flash fiction almost exclusively for several years. There just isn’t room for much description in tiny stories like that, a lot is left to the reader’s imagination. Now that I am writing a novella I’ve found that I nearly doubled my word count as I went back adding description, details and character traits.
    Janel Gradowski´s last blog post ..Hello and Welcome

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  19. says

    I think the advice to “be present” in our lives, to really inhabit and observe our moments, is particularly valuable — for writers, and for anyone in this day and age.

    But yeah, details. Isn’t it amazing how greater SPECIFICS actually allow a BROADER audience to connect with our writing? One of storytelling’s great ironies. ;)

    I think this is where writing exercises, like morning pages, can really come in handy. Instead of trying to write something big and brilliant, we can aim to describe something very small very well.

    By coincidence, I recently started a new feature on my blog that I call “Sketches,” inspired by seeing Picasso’s young drawing exercises at a museum in Barcelona: http://kristanhoffman.com/tag/sketches/. I feel like a lot of us in the WU community could use our blogs for things like this, to strengthen our writing in several ways (attention to detail, sharing with the public, etc.).
    Kristan Hoffman´s last blog post ..Bernabeu

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  20. says

    This is such perfect timing. I am struggling to learn to convey a characters feelings through descriptions of their bodily reactions instead of just saying “Mimi was stunned” for example.
    Obviously after reading this, I need to get deeper into my character.
    Thanks Barbara.
    Also, I love this: “I once spoke with a man who worked with raptors, and every time he said the word “hawk,” he looked at the sky.”

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  21. says

    I teach character study to drama students in the same way. Realizing the character, filling in the texture of the personality with detail, helps to develop the actor’s ability to walk in the character’s skin. It is the same for the writer. Good article.

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  22. says

    .
    You had me worrying with “cultivate the powerful use of elling detail in your own work” rather than Showing.. but made up for it later advising to cut back cut back cut back.

    Many books have too much detail. A Dickens book I read recently went on for two pages of description about the same thing six different ways rather than simply showing the place was dark and dingy and have the characters speak. A recent book by a new author described every article the main character dressed with before getting out of the house and into the story. Just describing mismatched pearl earrings might have been enough characterization since the other articles were meaningless.

    Detail can be very tricky but when done right it’s amazing.

    .

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