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Monday, March 2, 2015

Picking the RIGHT Details

If you've been writing very long, you'll know the importance of mentioning details in your writing. Appealing to the senses and attention to detail is what will ground your reader and bring your story to life. Details often make it so that your reader experiences your story, instead of just reading about it.

So as writers, we might want to mention what a character is wearing, the color of her hair, the smell of a river, or the texture of a tent. Usually we want to tag our character's with a particular description. If you read Harry Potter, you'll know the Minister of Magic, Fudge, always has a bowler hat, that Dumbledore has twinkling eyes and half-moon spectacles, that Professor Trelawney wears shawls and smells like sherry. J.K. Rowling mentions the same details for these character regularly to tag them (or in a future post, I'll refer to them as "anchors"). It helps us remember who the characters are and reminds us of their demeanor.

But sometimes as writers we don't pick meaningful details. We just pick something. We might say that "the man wore a white shirt." Okay. But that's so generic, we might as well not even mention it. It's so generic, that the reader is going to forget it almost immediately after reading it. It's not even characteristically interesting enough to be a tag. So it won't even help us remember the character.

So if you're ready to take your descriptions to the next level, focus on picking details that are worth mentioning. We tend to gravitate toward describing colors, because it's the most obvious thing, but often it's the most worthless description. If you tell us the color of every single shirt every person wears, it's (likely) meaningless. For characters, we gravitate toward hair and eye color. Of course, for important characters, we usually want to mention that, but we want to go beyond it too. We want to mention the physical traits that are unique and interesting--the x-shaped scar on the chin, the tattooed music note on the neck, the broken nose.

See how each of those descriptions have some kind of meaning or story behind them, even if we don't know what it is? They're unique details, and frankly, it's the unique details we usually notice first about people (places) anyway, so your viewpoint character would probably mention them.

Give your readers details that deserve attention, that mean something. Remember that man with the white shirt? Well, what if we said this, "Grease stains marred his white shirt." That's better. It clues the reader into this character. He does something, maybe some kind of work, that has grease, and it's messy. We could also write this, "His white shirt was stained from too many fast-food fryers at too many fast-food jobs." Now that's more interesting. It tells us something about the character. It gives him character. It's not generic. Not as easily forgotten.

Do the same with setting. We could write, "Jack sat down. His desk was a tan square with four legs." Wow. That's generic. Or we could write, "Jack's desk had one leg shorter than the other, so it wobbled when he wrote. Someone had carved a lightning strike into the top that Jack's pencil often caught on." See how the desk itself has more character? How it's more interesting?

You can even do this with summary. You could write, "Gwen's mom and dad died in a car crash." Wow. Haven't seen that one before. It seems like everyone dies in books from either a car crash or from cancer. Give us an interesting detail--either an interesting new death concept, or a detail that makes the car crash particularly interesting or different than what we've heard. Move away from the generic. Stop making all the trees in stories oaks or maples, and if they are oaks and maples, mention something interesting about them--that one is dying, or has been struck by lightning, or has a suicide note carved into it.

Your details can have layers. A few posts ago, I mentioned that in Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn books, that one character's library is described as having loads of scholarly and philosophical books, but all the spines are stiff and straight and none of the pages are dog-eared and each volume is dusty. Those are details that mean something. They go deeper than just the surface. They tell us about the character. He likes to talk and pretend to be scholarly, but he actually hasn't put in the work or research to be a scholar.

The mention of this character's library, the details in the description, are interesting, meaningful, and layered. They aren't generic and randomly thrown together.

So, to take your descriptions to the next level, give us details that tell us something more, details that deserve to be mentioned, that make whatever is described more "personality."

Next week, I'll give you three methods to make the details of your writing more interesting.

1 comment:

  1. Linda, Showing the difference in meaningful & unique details versus generic ones was extremely helpful. This post is sending me straight to my manuscript to change a detail about a car accident. Do you have a place where we can ask you questions?


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