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Your Story Lives in the Details

[1]Please welcome Nancy E. Johnson [2] to Writer Unboxed today! Nancy was not only a finalist for the Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association Rising Star Award [3] (2016), she was dubbed a winner in the Writer’s Digest “Dear Lucky Agent” contest!

More about Nancy:

Nancy is a senior communications leader with an Emmy-nominated, award-winning television journalism background. She contributed to O, the Oprah Magazine which published her personal essay [4] in the November 2015 issue. When she’s not reading, writing or pontificating about politics, she’s running and eating chocolate, sometimes at the same time. A Chicago native, Nancy serves as secretary for Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter [5], and is currently querying agents with her first novel and writing her second. You can find her on Twitter at @NancyJAuthor [6].

We’re so pleased Nancy is with us today to explore the gateway into fiction that is descriptive detail. Enjoy!

Your Story Lives in the Details

We’ve all received pleas in our inboxes or in the mail to donate money to feed hungry children in remote parts of the world. What do you remember most? What touched your heart? Chances are it wasn’t the fancy charts with data points about childhood hunger. That’s why these relief organizations include a photo and a brief story about one child you can help. You learn details about that child’s favorite foods, games, quirks, life challenges, and community – details that transform him from a statistic to a real person worthy of your emotional and financial investment.

Our novels come alive for readers when we delve as deeply as we can in specificity. I’ve beta read manuscripts about children dying of cancer, marriages falling apart, and police officers narrowly escaping death in shootouts with suspects. Those are all dramatic, emotional scenarios that should grip me and hold me for 300 pages. I know the authors wanted me to care about these people and their journeys, but I didn’t. The writers created generic scenes and characters that fell flat on the page. You should be able to identify your protagonist in a lineup because the details about her are so precise and unique that this book could be about no other woman.

Books that get the details about scene and character right hook us immediately and it often happens right away in that first chapter. Let’s examine a few of my favorite novels that grabbed me early on with vivid details and didn’t let go until long after I’d read the last page.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

From the very first line, we learn so much about two of the main characters.

When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them. It became a permanent character of their clothes, the beds they slept in, the vinyl backs of their car seats. Sean’s kitchen smelled like a Fudgsicle, his bathroom like a Coleman Chew-Chew bar. By the time they were eleven, Sean and Jimmy had developed a hatred of sweets so total they took their coffee black for the rest of their lives and never ate dessert.

In those opening sentences, Lehane introduces us to these two boys by sharing telling details about their fathers. Remember though that the details you reveal shouldn’t be arbitrary ones just to check the box. Here, the details about the stench of chocolate from the plant indicate that these are working class people and we get the hint here that Sean and Jimmy will try to escape something from their childhoods but won’t be able to outrun it.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

In the first chapter, we meet Jende Jonga, a man from Cameroon who is preparing to interview for a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy American executive at Lehman Brothers.

Alone in the elevator to the twenty-eighth floor, he inspected his fingernails (no dirt, thankfully). He adjusted his clip-on tie using the security mirror above his head; reexamined his teeth and found no remnants of the fried ripe plantains and beans he’d eaten for breakfast. He cleared his throat and wiped off whatever saliva had crusted on the sides of his lips.

Because of the details Mbue gives us, I can feel Jende’s anxiety as well as his intense desire to make a good impression in that interview. She went beyond the usual descriptions of someone’s heart racing or him tapping his feet in anticipation. Also, the mention of plantains and beans in his teeth is a brilliant detail about Jende’s West African roots that sets up the struggle he’ll have with identity in America.

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

We tried to hold on. We played double Dutch and jacks. We chased the ice cream truck down the block, waving our change-filled fists. We frog-jumped over tree stumps, pulled each other into gushing fire hydrants, learned to dance the Loose Booty to Sly and the Family Stone, hustled to Van McCoy. We bought t-shirts with our names and zodiac signs in iron-on letters. 

Those are details of the childhood unique to the four girls in this novel yet they’re universal enough for all of us to feel nostalgic and wistful about our years growing up. Woodson does a masterful job of telling this coming of age story of girls desperately trying to hold on to their innocence, even going so far as to have their names and signs emblazoned on their chests. Alas, we know that she’ll show us later in the novel how the world stripped those girls of some of that innocence.

Every detail in your novel should deepen characterization and reveal something meaningful in your story. Don’t waste those words. Choose them carefully and they will help your readers connect with the characters and their journey in the book.

How have you used specific details in your novels to make your characters come alive on the page? What challenges did you encounter? Have you read any books lately that offered vivid, relevant, memorable details that made the story unforgettable?

About Nancy Johnson [7]

Nancy Johnson [2] (she/her) is the debut author of THE KINDEST LIE, forthcoming February 2 from William Morrow/HarperCollins. Her novel has been named a most anticipated book of 2021 by Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, Refinery29, Woman's Day, and PopSugar. A graduate of Northwestern University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Nancy lives in downtown Chicago. Find her online at https://nancyjohnson.net/ [2].