Monday, February 7, 2011


You know that famous phrase, “the Devil is in the details?”  Or its corollary (which I think actually came first), “God is in the details?”  We all know the wisdom of these phrases when it comes to things like contracts—whether for health insurance or a car loan or pest control or a movie deal for our manuscript (well, we only HOPE to know it about the movie deal, but we can imagine).  Buyer beware!  Check those details with a magnifying glass before you sign on the dotted line.

But it's not only in areas where we need to be wary that details are important. It's also in areas that we want to be great, beautiful, and fulfilling in our personal lives, like love, food, travel and reading—and writing.  Just as the real worth of a contract is shaped, and possibly hidden, in its details, the real worth of our writing shines through the details we include.  When you think of the books that have meant the most to you, I'm willing to bet the ones that come to mind are the ones that evoke the clearest, most visceral impressions of characters, feelings, action and settings. How do those authors do that? Through well-rendered details.

Compare these two sentences:

1.  Tiny beads of moisture slicked Julia's skin, and larger drops fell intermittently from the trees to the sodden carpet of leaves beneath her feet.

2.  Julia stood under the still-dripping trees after the rain, getting wet.

Number one is taken from the prologue of Leave the Grave Green by Deborah Crombie.   Number two makes the same factual statement, without the embellishment.  In Crombie's rendering of this sentence—tiny beads of moisture slicking Julia's skin, the falling drops being larger and intermittent, the sodden carpet of leaves—what a difference these details make in painting the picture and making it visceral.  I especially like the work the active verb, “slicked” does in combination with those “tiny beads of moisture.”  I have an impression of how Julia probably feels standing there, because I'm there with her.

When I look at the use of details in this context, I begin to appreciate anew the rewriting my old professor in a novel-writing group required of us.  "Take that sentence and re-render it, using detail that comes from the character's emotion," he would exhort us, and we would sigh in frustration because we thought the sentence was doing it's job of getting the reader from point A to point B just fine.  But then we would do it and get excited because he was right.  Just looking at the difference between the examples above makes that clear to me. (And that part about making the detail relate to the character is essential,whether it's coming from her emotions or is external but clearly affects her in that moment.)

If this kind of attention to detail didn't come naturally to you as you wrote your first draft, it represents an important level of revision.  When I revise to add detail, I only hope to have the insight and patience needed to do it well:  awareness of where sentences can be made richer through more detail without slowing the pace inappropriately, and a willingness to apply myself in all those spots.  Pace is an important consideration with this topic—we need to be aware of that, too.  Even in the fastest-paced genre novels, though, deftly-used, telling details are what make the difference between a good story and a great one.



  1. Great point, Linda,

    So often we are told to simplify our writing. But to paint an image or scene with words the author has to enrich the reader with DETAILS.

    What we as writers have to learn is balance. That is the key to a well written novel.


  2. Balance is a great way to think of it Michael. Clear writing/deft details. Sounds excellent!

  3. Linda, I agree with Michael we are so often told to simplify. Especially in the thriller when we need action. Is there anyway to add details without slowing down that action and the pace?
    I found myself removing more details on my edit. I'm thinking genre might have a say in the detail too. Thank you for the great post! I'm excited to get into my novel!

  4. I love how said that Linda, "I hope I have the insight and patience to do it well." I think that is often what it comes down to. We must take out time and make our work something special because it's all about the details!

  5. Yes, it's so tough with a genre like thriller. I'm definitely not an expert in that genre, but do love to read the occasional Lee Child (or Karlene Petitt!). I've noticed people like Child and David Morrell are masters at deft detail. They find the right word that says so much. We can all learn from them.

  6. So true, Heather. Giving it the time it needs is crucial. You made me think of something I heard Ira Glass (NPR) say in an interview. He said to be really hard on yourself when you edit, and go for greatness. Understand that anything less will be mediocre. (I'm paraphrasing) He gave examples of his own early interviews with people of interest, and explained how bad they were because he hadn't understood that well enough early on. A little intimidating, but very inspiring!