It’s the details, writers!

An author builds a narrative with thousands of tiny details.

Even before a reader knows what the book is really about, it’s through the gradual accumulation of these crucial moments, objects, movements, sounds, smells and touches that the power and meaning of the story emerges.

As an editor working with authors on novels, memoirs, short stories and narrative non-fiction, I often see early drafts that try to describe how the characters are feeling or explain what the story is about and how the reader is supposed to react to it. This approach creates a filter that clouds and ultimately obliterates the reality of what’s happening.

What I try to help the author do instead, is select the creative details that put the reader at the center of the each moment, so they can see, hear, and smell the landscape of the character’s experience.

Exquisite attention to detail: Two examples

Let’s take a look at a couple of illuminating examples from two stellar authors.

Toni Morrison’s brilliant first novel The Bluest Eye draws us into the world of Claudia MacTee, a nine-year-old black girl living in Lorain, Ohio in 1941. In this scene, her older sister Frieda brings a snack to their new roomer Pecola:

“Frieda brought her four graham crackers on a saucer and some milk in a blue-and-white Shirley Temple cup. She was a long time with the milk, and gazed fondly at the silhouette of Shirley Temple’s dimpled face. Frieda and she had a loving conversation about how cu-ute Shirley Temple was. I couldn’t join them in their adoration because I hated Shirley. Not because she was cute, but because she danced with Bojangles, who was my friend, my uncle, my daddy, and who ought to have been soft-shoeing it and chuckling with me. Instead he was enjoying, sharing, giving a lovely dance thing with one of those little white girls whose socks never slid down under their heels.  So I said, “I like Jane Withers.”

They gave me a puzzled look, decided I was incomprehensible, and continued their reminiscing about old squint-eyed Shirley.”

Those concrete little details – the cup, the dimples, the socks, the fond gazing, the squinty eyes – show us Claudia’s deepest feelings. We get it, in a way we never would if Morrison delivered instead a tedious lecture about a child who felt rejected because of her black skin.

In Hunger Games, author Suzanne Collins creates a powerful sense of her character Katniss Everdeen’s vigilance and dread as she prepares for her fight to the death on live TV:

“I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots. Supple leather that has molded to my feet. I pull on trousers, a shirt, tuck my long dark braid up into a cap, and grab my forage bag. On the table, under a wooden bowl to protect it from hungry rats and cats alike, sits a perfect little goat cheese wrapped in basil leaves…I put the cheese carefully in my pocket as I slip outside.

Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many who have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces. But today the black cinder streets are empty. Shutters on the squat gray houses are closed.”

She reaches “a high chain-link fence topped with barbed-wire loops…flatten out on my belly and slide under… As soon as I’m in the trees I retrieve a bow and sheath of arrows from a hollow log.”

Wow. And that’s just from a few paragraphs of a book that went on to become a huge bestseller and hit movie.

Why details matter

What we love about reading stories is experiencing these kinds of details through the eyes of one of the characters and gradually associating them with the protagonist’s feelings and perceptions. The details can be small physical actions, they can be distinctly observed and utilized objects, or quoted dialogue, or apparent distractions, or can be natural or unnatural intrusions.

The author creates a series of moments, small dots drawn not necessarily on a straight line but often an artfully constructed zigzag that creates an inside sense of the characters thoughts and feelings without telling or explaining what they are but instead showing us, painting the actual landscape of the their hidden emotions.

Creative choices

Here are some techniques for creating effective details when building your narrative, whether you’re writing in first person or third:

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Creating effective details

Look

Imagine your characters moving through each scene from their point of view. See through their eyes. Consider what they might be feeling, given their problems, conflicts, inner emotions. What do they focus on in their immediate landscape, what are the natural or manmade objects they encounter. Study them. Choose only those that reflect their emotions.

Follow

Track your characters in time and space. Now that you know where they are, what do they do? Create actions that demonstrate either directly or obliquely how well they’re able to function. Do they move in a straight line towards a tangible goal? Do they digress, avoid, circle back. How, specifically?

Touch

Get familiar with the objects they encounter or utilize. Find them in your own life. Handle them, buy them if necessary. Go to the place, the physical location you imagine them, if possible. Do what they do, so you can get a sense of the tactile experience, the feel, the smell of the scene.

Listen

What are your characters hearing? What do they say to themselves or others. Say it out loud and hear how it sounds. Remember that no one speaks exactly like someone else. Delineate your characters and have their words reflect their state of mind: in a hurry, avoiding, deflecting? And remember that written dialogue is not actually everything someone may say in real life, but a dramatic distillation.

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Building a convincing world

Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature describes the way readers link the details with the emotions of the protagonist in his book The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist: Understanding What Happens When We Write and Read Novels.

“Once we have begun to read a novel and have worked our way into it, we do not see a certain type of landscape; on the contrary, we instinctively try to determine where we are in the vast forest of moments and details.

But when we encounter the individual trees – the discrete moments and sentences that make up the novel – we want to see not only the events, the flow, and the drama, but also the visual correlative of that moment. The novel thus appears in our mind as a real, three-dimensional, convincing world. Then, rather than perceiving divisions between the events and the objects, the drama and the landscape, we sense an overarching unity, just as in life.”

I highly recommend this wonderful book for all writers.

Pamuk recently opened a museum in Istanbul based on his novel The Museum of Innocence. It has 83 display cases, one for every chapter in the book, containing such things as 4,213 cigarette butts, each supposedly touched by Fusun, the object of the narrator’s obsessive love. There’s an earring that has fallen off as the hero is biting his lover’s ear, plus a tricycle, dozens of ceramic dogs, an electric shaver, a can opener, a carving knife, old clocks, film clips, soda bottles and clothing of the era worn by the characters. The author wrote these details in his novel and has now actually assembled them to display as the building blocks of his characters and their story.

What about you?

How do you use details to build character and story? We look forward to hearing your comments and examples.

19 Responses to It’s the details, writers!

  1. Linda Adams

    I struggle with details because I’m not detail oriented, and at times, I fear I will put too much in. I did that before — I nearly wrecked a story because I shoveled so many details into it that it was hard to tell what the story was about. The details as details didn’t mean much to me, and worse, I couldn’t tell when I added too many, so I added waaaayyyy too many. So I had to find a different way to get them into the story that worked with the way I think. Since I’m not detail-oriented, I’m something else: Big picture focused. The result was that I approached them from a top down approach, thinking of them in terms of how they connect to the story as a whole.

  2. Mary Incontro

    Wonderful post! I often feel challenged trying to convey a character’s emotions without sentimentality, without sounding corny. It feels so good to write a sentence containing actions and details that effectively convey how the character feels without having to say “she was sad” or “he was angry.” No need to talk down to readers and your post advises us how to avoid that.

  3. Bridget McKenna

    When I first set out to write professionally, I would eat up those little details in other people’s fiction, saying to myself “How did he (or she) DO that?”

    Of course once you start reading like a writer you don’t stop doing it, and after 30-something years I still find myself thrilled (and learning!) when I read for pleasure and recognize a partiularly well-placed detail the writer put in there to direct my thoughts and emotions. And I imagine the thrill the writer must have felt, realizing the detail was exactly the right thing in the right place to get the desired response. Delicious!

  4. Alan Rinzler

    Linda

    If you think you have too many comments that don’t mean much to you, read the draft over a few times and see which of them really help your big picture gradually reveal itself. This careful choice of details will start to connect the dots for your story as a whole. Remember, writing is re-writing!

  5. Alan Rinzler

    Mary,

    Readers often have different responses to the moment-by-moment details of a character’s words or actions. We draw upon our own histories, current emotions, and personal temperaments as we keep turning the pages. So I agree that the less an author labels feelings and explains what’s going on the better.

  6. Alan Rinzler

    Bridget,

    Reading like a writer is excellent advice and relates closely to understanding how choosing the right details is the kind of writer’s craft that can actually be learned, with great results.

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  8. Matt

    Alan – Thanks for doing a post on craft and offering advice not just to “show not tell,” but how to do so.

    I’m wondering about interior monologue: Do you consider that a valid way to show the details of a character’s thoughts and feelings, or should we try to avoid it and show thoughts and feelings only through dialogue, action, the character’s perception of his environment, etc.?

  9. Alan Rinzler

    Matt,

    Good question. Internal dialogue is a fine way to show details. “I saw…picked up…moved away from…” All sorts of legitimate and significant details can be shown through internal thoughts. Just don’t flood the narrator’s mind with anything like “fear and loathing gripped my heart…I was depressed, lonely, laughing through my tears…”

  10. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    I suggest writing visually: in other words see the scene before you write the scene. Let your mind’s eye be the camera and you are the medium recording what the camera inside your head sees as to the characters, the setting, and the action as well as hearing the dialogue, if there is any, which may not be necessary in certain scenes where dialogue can actually spoil the effect you are shooting for. A point that is noted for writers who write screenplays is that nothing goes on the page that is not seen on the screen. Visual writing can be applied to novel writing to make it more real, more vivid to the reader. Since I’ve been writing screenplays as well as novels and nonfiction work, I try to write visually where it fits best in the story. The where and the when is determined by the astute writer.

  11. Pat Wooldridge

    Thank you, Alan Rinzler. This information is invaluable.

  12. Tahmina

    Great post but I’m still kind of confused. My editing group often tells me my details are beautiful but too long winded and not making my main character’s feelings clear. They keep telling me that I spend half a page or more trying to create a feeling and sometimes don’t succeed, when I could do that in one or two sentences.

    I find that kind of spelling out of character’s feelings boring to read and atrocious to write, but I’m worried that they are right that my details aren’t giving the reader enough insight into my character and her world. Any tips on how to gauge whether your details are actually working for you?

  13. Alan Rinzler

    Tahmina,

    Spelling out, explaining, or interpreting a character’s feelings is definitely boring to read and a pain to write. Stick to avoiding that with those revealing and illuminating details that show your characters inner feelings with dialogue, actions, and sensory descriptions.

    But if you’re getting consistent feedback that your details are too long and lack clarity, you’d better prune and focus them until they’re brief and effective. Then get more feedback or better yet, professional help from an experienced developmental editor.

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  16. Paul Hughes

    I’m not sure, not having read it, but I think the part you quoted from the book is not when she’s getting ready for the fight to the death, but when she’s going out to hunt. It sounds in the passage like she’s in District 12 — her home, not the arena. Just a detail …

    Overall, absolutely an excellent post, and one I need to re-read. And do.

    Thanks kindly.

  17. Mandy Eve-Barnett

    Excellent article – thank you.
    I will re-blog it on my blog today in my Reblog Wenesday feature.

    Thank you
    Mandy

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  19. Jhon

    Anna, how lovely to hear from you! Just last night I was palnning a new blog post about independent bookshops and realised it would be almost entirely about how wonderful your shop is, and how well you do what you do there.I’m sure you know my sister, as when we’ve been in your shop together you’ve chatted: I’ll email you privately and tell you her name. For anyone reading this who doesn’t know Wenlock Books: it’s a fabulous book shop in Much Wenlock, Shropshire. Downstairs you’ll find new books, and upstairs are the second-hand ones, along with a big circular table which on Saturday mornings seems to be full of coffee and cakes and people reading books. Wenlock Books organises brilliant readings and wonderful literary events of all kinds, won the title of Independent Bookseller of the Year for 2006 (I think), and is one of my favourite places. Take a detour to it and spend a lot of money there. You’ll be pleased you did.

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