When I think, I think in broad, sweeping strokes, always attempting to see the whole essence of a thing at a glance. To me, details are small, brightly-colored specks of dust that will float in one side of my brain and out the other unless I can fit them into a larger framework. In my mind, details have their proper place, but its not first place.
However, the problem with this method when it comes to writing fiction is that I can have the overarching plot and purpose of a story in mind, but because those larger concepts have nothing tied to them, the story feels like it lacks substance. Good stories and good prose are rich in detail. Without them, whatever the author is trying to say floats above our heads like a lofty cloud which we can see but cannot touch. So then, when big-picture people like me write, we have to reach through the fog of what we’re trying to say in order to grasp the details hidden within it.
So, the question becomes, how do we reach for details?
Here are a few tricks that can apply to almost everything:
1. What Things?
While we are still alive, we experience everything big and intangible through things that are small and tangible. We experience love through warm hugs, uplifting words, and unexpected gifts. We experience rejection through unanswered phone calls, condescending laughs, and refusal to make eye contact. Other people can tell you are angry by your raised voice, frowning brow, and harsh words. Other people can tell you love to read by the frequent stops at the library and the paperback that’s always in your purse.
We see the big things in life by looking at the small things. So what things? Find the specifics that tell a larger story.
Everything that can be experienced with the eyes has some kind of color. Even if the color of something isn’t that important, you still want to give people an impression of whether something was light-colored or dark-colored. The story may not be about what things look like, but humans are primarily visually-oriented, so we must give our readers’ human brains something to work with. And color is huge.
For example, I believe it is very important to state a character’s hair color right away – especially if the character is female, since female characters tend to have more hair. This is because hair color has a dramatic effect on the way the character looks, even if they’re portrayed in a black-and-white movie. I’ve discovered the hard way that it’s very difficult for me to reimagine a character as being blonde if I’ve already imagined them as being brunette. It’s not really about the color as much as its about whether the hair is light or dark.
The light/dark dynamic holds true for what kind of day it is (sunny or cloudy), what kind of clothes a character is wearing, what the inside of a building is like, how a landscape looks, and many other things. If you’re in a hurry, you don’t have to include much more detail than that – but at least give your reader somewhere to start in imagining the scene.
3. Shape / Size
Short or tall? Large or small? Wide or narrow? Curved or straight? Flat or three-dimensional? Cubic or spherical? Yes, these are basic things that sound like they came straight out of the grade-school lesson where you first learned about adjectives, but basics remain basic because they are foundational, and give a lot of information in a little space.
4. What tells the most?
Find the extra things that say the most about an object, place, or person. Is the baseball smudged with dirt? Is the coat of paint fresh and flawless? Is the pine forest scraggly? Does the mansion have a large picture window that looks out over the valley? Is the man’s hair ruffled the wrong way because he’s been running his hands through it in frustration?
Reaching for a poignant detail takes practice – and it helps to practice by starting with other details.
Putting it Together
I believe you can start practicing hunting for details before you actually try to write something. The act of pushing through the vague ideas to something definite will help strengthen the part of your brain that gives you the words to write.
So, let’s do an exercise, putting these four detail-finders into action.
I’ll start with an assertion – I am a writer.
Really? How would someone know that? What things say this is so?
I always have a notebook and some pens in my bag that I take everywhere.
OK, notebook, pens. Two good details, but that’s only the surface. What kind of notebook? What kind of pens? Do they have colors?
A green notebook, a blue pen, a purple pen, a black pen, and a pencil.
That’s a little better, but we still don’t know what kind of things these are.
A bright-green 5-subject notebook, blue and purple ballpoint pens, a black liquid-ink pen, and a mechanical pencil.
Now we’re getting somewhere. A few more clarifying details will demonstrate what exactly are my relationships with these items.
A large, worn 5-subject notebook with a swirling vine doodled on the cover in faded sharpie, accompanied by two smooth-writing, click-top ballpoint pens in blue and purple, a fine-tipped, black liquid-ink pen, and a deluxe mechanical pencil with a twistable eraser on top.
Now we know just about everything about what writing materials I use when I’m on the go. We’ve described my notebook and my pens exactly as one would first experience them. However, we’ve spent more time talking about the pens, and less time talking about the most interesting part, the notebook. Since the notebook is more likely to say more about who I am, we can trim down the description of the pens, and then we’ll have space to say what the inside of the notebook is like.
A large, worn 5-subject notebook with a swirling vine doodled on the cover in faded sharpie – filled with pages of writing interspersed with the same swirl designs. One section is mostly made up of freeverse poetry, and in the back a page covered in anime faces can be right next to a page with a much more realistic sketch of an actor from a geeky TV show.
Now we’ve taken a step beyond knowing what materials I use to write, to knowing a lot more about ME and what I’m like. (Being the private person I am, I’ll stop feeding you details at this point, if you don’t mind.)
As you’re practicing the art of coming up with details, start with details from your own life. Dig into the objects you care about the most and find out what about them says the most about you. When you see how detailed your own life is, you can begin to give your characters and their lives a similar amount of detail.
Here is an exercise to help stretch the detail-muscle, whenever you feel it begin to atrophy:
List of Things
Make a list of things (including places and people). They don’t have to be related to each other – in fact, it’s better if they are not. They just have to be definite, concrete things that you can experience with at least one of your five senses – and it’s much more fun if you pick things you like.
There are a couple catches, though:
1. They cannot be objects/people that are in the same room you are in (and it certainly can’t be the same place).
2. If you do list an object/person/place that you are familiar with, change it in some significant way.
3. You must use more than one word to describe each object/person/place. Say exactly what kind of something it is.
With #1, say you are sitting in your kitchen writing, and you have with you a small mug of green tea with blue flowers on it. You can still list ‘mug of tea,’ on your list, but it cannot be the same mug of tea. It must be a big, brown mug of tea with a white polka-dot design on it, and the tea must be Earl Grey. You see what I mean? You must use your imagination. Make something up. Once you’ve made it up, take a moment to visualize what it would be like, sitting here writing with a completely different mug full of completely different tea.
Try to make the items on your list very different from one another. Now that you’ve written down a mug of tea, try thinking of a place. How about a garden? Yes, but what kind of garden? Not the little vegetable garden with tomatoes and cucumbers you plant in your back yard every year. Perhaps a flower garden – a rose garden, specifically, filled with roses of the most delicate shade of pink. And this garden isn’t a small garden – it’s a big garden, with fountains and little stone benches to sit on. A royal garden.
Now let’s try a person – a pastor, perhaps. My pastor is short, white-haired, and clean-shaven, so let’s instead imagine a young pastor, tall and lanky, with close-cut blond curls and some feeble attempts at a goatee. (This would probably be a youth pastor, not a senior pastor – but what if he was the senior pastor? What kind of church would he be pastor of?)
Keep making the list. Don’t stop until the page is full. Some of the things you come up with may bore you, but keep going. Don’t be afraid to make things wild and extravagant, if you have to. But be specific. Mention things that will raise questions. Why does the plumber read so many books on World War I? Who on earth decided the mansion should be painted that shade of purple? Is there a reason the trees on the ridge are sickly?
Reach. Reach a little farther than you ‘have to.’ You can always take out details later, and it’s a beautiful thing to have a wealth of specifics to choose from.