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?


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.