Monday, June 25, 2012

Details in Your Writing

The worth of our writing shines through the details we include. The clearest, most visceral impressions of characters, feelings, action and settings are what make the difference between average writing and writing so good that readers want more—lots more.

Compare these two sentences:
  • 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.
  • Julia stood under the still-dripping trees after the rain, getting wet. 

The first is taken from the prologue of LEAVE THE GRAVE GREEN by Deborah Crombie. The second makes the same factual statement, without the detail. 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 might feel standing there, because I'm there with her. I want to read the next sentences to see if I'm right.

Descriptive detail, like that above, can slow the pace of the story, and you can purposely use it not only to enrich the world you're building on the page, but to create a moment of reflection or a chance to breathe between faster-paced scenes. Pace is an important consideration. Detail can help you control it. But don't leave it out, no matter what pace you want. Even in the fastest-paced genre novels, deftly-used, telling details are what make the difference between a good story and a great one.

A type of detail that doesn't slow the pace can be rendered with strong nouns and verbs (like 'slicked' above) that require little or no other description. This is the type to go for when you want to keep that pace moving:
  • Beads of moisture slicked Julia's skin. She spun and slashed at an unseen intruder in the pitch-black room, his heat and breath her guides.  (apologies to Deborah Crombie for stealing Julia and her damp skin)
  • We descend a steep alley, slip beneath an archway, skirt some shuttered restaurants. (Anthony Doerr, FOUR SEASONS IN ROME) This is much gentler than the first example, but still powerful and in motion.
How do you raise the level of your writing to this standard? Sentence by sentence, that's how. As a professor of mine was fond of saying when advising us on our writing: "Take that sentence and re-render it, using detail that comes from the character's emotion."  Believe me, I groaned out loud along with others in the class, but we did it, and it worked. As you see in the examples, the details don't have to be the 'she felt x' variety. In fact, you should steer away from that—it usually takes the reader out of the story and flattens the moment. Details are better if they are organic to the context—if they convey a mood or feeling being experienced by the character, without flatly stating it.

Do you have a favorite example of powerful detail? Do you naturally use deft details in your writing, or  like many writers, devote a full revision to improving detail and pace?


  1. Linda, this is an incredible post, and I hope all writers take the moment to read it. Creating a visual is so important, and powerful. It's back to that statement, "Show don't tell." Creating a powerful visual "shows."

    Interesting thing happened when I read your two sentences. I create the visuals in my mind when they're not in the writing. What did I see with... "Julia stood under the still-dripping trees after the rain, getting wet?"

    I saw a woman with long hair, drenched. Hair sticking to her faces and clothes clinging to her body. With the Maple tree's large branches overhead, dripping. A drop splatters on her face, and she wipes it away with the back of her hand.

    Okay, I'm not the normal person on the visual. My mind works like movies. What if we could get our movie minds to the paper? That would be great.

    Okay... I must write the really bad draft and re-render it many times. But the real key here is to remember, re-render it from the "character's" emotion.

    Good question. How do you write characters' emotions?

    Thanks for a great post!

    1. That's a great question, Karlene. I'm thinking the answer is complex and would take a lot of detail (heh) to be worthwhile. But one thing that seems key is that this is how we get to really know the character on the page. Say your character is camping in the woods but has never been in the woods before, only driven past them. His camp mate got up early and left the campsite to fish in a nearby but not visible stream. As your camper huddles next to the cold fire pit trying to light a fire to make some coffee, he hears what sounds like a growl back in the thick woods behind him. A minute later he hears another, a little closer. What does he do? What goes through his mind? How does he feel? It's going to be different than what an experienced camper/hiker would do or feel. It's also going to tell us a ton about the character of your character, and give us a powerful insight into what feeling we can expect from his as the story unfolds. Thanks for the great question! You've got me rumination' This would be an excellent post topic :)

    2. So true. And if we know our characters... are they fearful of the woods or confident in the woods, is this their first time or their 100th time... they would behave differently. Knowing your characters is essential. Actually, this might be a great way to get to know your characters.

      I can't tell you how many times I ask myself, "What would Darby do? Think? Feel?" as I write a passage.

      Don't you love the process?

  2. Sentence by sentence, I love that. When you put it that way it doesn't seem so daunting. And the pay off is worth every moment spent on it!

    1. That's an excellent observation, Heather. It doesn't seem so daunting. I'm about to apply this idea to six pages that have to be reduced to five. Deep breath! But I know I can do it, sentence by sentence! :-)

  3. Oh, so true, and a needed reminder for all of us,Linda!

    1. Lorelei, the reminder is something I personally need frequently! We have our own rhythms in writing, and while that's fantastic because it gets us where we need to go when we're creating, the original creation can be vastly improved by looking at and improving details (at least mine can).