A writer’s life is in the details.
Have you ever noticed this? Of course, our stories are about grand adventures, life-changing events, and worlds and people that only belong in our minds.
But where the story really catches a reader—where it connects, where it makes them pause and linger because in that sentence they were there, in the story—those moments are in the details.
In the hitch of breath. In the smell of crushed grass and blood. In the silver gleam of a dragon’s scales, or the glint of moonlight on a soldier’s musket in the midst of the Civil War.
Those are the moments that catch a reader. Not the dates, not statistics, not the entire history and structure of the Paris sewers. (Looking at you, Victor Hugo.) The reader wants to see the world through the eyes of your character, and the best way to make it happen is in the details.
Still, that’s hard, right? How do you know which details to write about? Because I can guarantee, if you toss every single detail in a battle scene at the reader, your scene will be ten pages long and the reader will give up in exasperation.
It’s just as bad to overwhelm your readers as it is to starve them.
Thankfully, most of us are writers because we aren’t content with the world through the eyes of a nine-to-five job.
We know what we want to see. We know what snatches us into the scene, what makes us pause.
Except when we don’t.
Sometimes it feels like some kind of witch’s brew that we forgot to get the recipe for. A little lighting, a little sound, maybe the creak of an old oak in the wind. Oaks creak, right? Or an owl. We could stick an owl in there—if owls live in that sort of environment
After a while, it gets a little desperate, and the details we throw in end up taking away rather than adding to our scene.
How To Make It Happen
So how do we know what belongs and what doesn’t? How do we find the details that matter, that catch a reader, and avoid our characters talking in white space, or worse, spending ten pages describing the Paris sewers instead of telling the story?
So how do we find life in the details?
Because you can. I do. The details are my favorite part of a story, and when I find them as a reader it always, always catches me into the story.
As a writer, I revel in them. I’ve made my mistakes (too many to count, actually), and I’ve found my rhythm.
I do it with two truths, three tricks, and one breath.
Magic is everywhere . . . especially in the mundane. Everything around us is moving, shaping, telling stories that will probably never be written down. Everything is story fodder, everything has the details you’re searching for.
And you won’t find them in front of a blank screen and a blinking cursor.
Writers need to live. They need to go for walks, sit in coffee shops, go to plays and movies, walk through crowded rooms. The more you notice the details—especially the ones that catch your eye and feel important—the more you’ll be able to project that into your writing.
If you haven’t made a mistake lately, you aren’t growing.
My delete key is my best friend. I have deleted probably ten times as many words as I’ve ever kept and never felt bad about one of them. If a scene is going wrong, and I feel like I’ve missed the details that matter, I’ll start over.
It drives my sister nuts.
Every word I write is teaching me, whether I keep it or not. The mistakes you make in pursuit of the details are your apprenticeship. What you delete will teach you more than what you keep.
- Notice everything. When you’re out walking, when you’re at the mall, and especially when you’re traveling. Keep a journal just for the things you see and smell and taste and touch. The more you immerse yourself in the details, the more you’ll understand which ones are important and which can be tossed aside.
- Find what you love and write about that. The rain. Wind. Coffee shops, sunshine, pine forests. If you love what you’re describing, it will come out that much more vivid. My stories always include rainy nights—because I love rain, and I can immediately capture the details that matter to me.
- Take special care of the small things. The larger something is, the more time it will take to describe and the quicker you will lose your reader. So describe your huge cities and palaces that reach to the sky as briefly as possible, then show the reader the swinging sign above your character’s apothecary, the cat lounging in the window, and the steam rising above a bubbling beaker. Those are the details that will matter.
As I’m writing this, I’m sitting on a picnic blanket in a neighborhood park with a view of Pikes Peak stretching out in front of me.
And I’ll be honest, it’s far easier to focus on the kids that are chasing each other around the park or the clutter of things we brought with us or even the work I’m struggling to get done rather than enjoying the fact that the peaks are gray and blue today and crowned with snow, that I’m sitting under the most beautiful spruce tree, or that the wind smells like spring at last.
That needs a pause. One breath. A moment of mindfulness. That’s where the details are found.
Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.
What are your favorite kinds of details to use in a story? Tell me about them in the comments! And stay tuned for next week, when we will be discussing perfectionism and toxic effect it can have on a work-in-progress.