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Monday, May 24, 2021

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 characters 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 regularly mentions the same details for these characters to tag them. This helps readers remember who the characters are and reminds them of their demeanors and behaviors.

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 has some kind of meaning or story behind it, 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 (or 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 unique. 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. In Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn books, 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.

There are two caveats to all this: Not everything deserves highly specific descriptions. Sometimes the reader just needs to know that a "tree" was nearby. And the more specific something is, the more it will slow pacing. Often the right pacing is more important than description.

A writer doesn't necessarily need to overload something with details. Yet being generic in details is about the same as leaving out details. Saying there was a "tree with green leaves" isn't helping the text. When the subject isn't particularly important, aim for brief specific details. 

(This post originally went up in 2015. This is only my second time doing a repost on here, but I'm working on some bigger articles that aren't ready yet, and I wanted to spend my limited time this weekend working on those instead of writing a brand new one. Nonetheless, I hope this was helpful.)


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