Friday, July 6, 2012

It's All in the Details

The details you use in your story could be the most important part of your writing, because they are what brings your story alive to the reader. Without physical details, we wouldn’t know that Harry wears round spectacles or that Mr. Tumnus carries an umbrella.

To illustrate my point, let me show you a few examples. Which of the following makes the scene come to life in your mind’s eye?
A girl and a man walked down the street.
Two people walked down the sidewalk along Main Street: a little girl with serious brown bangs over her eyes and a middle-aged man, his charcoal suit hanging on him lopsidedly.
A 5-year-old girl wearing a floaty pink dress, her blue eyes wide, held her father’s hand as he led her down the cobblestone street of Paris, past Nicholas Flamel’s house.
In both of these latter versions, we can see the people and the place much more clearly. It would be even more clear if we could add another sentence describing the sensations of taste or sound or touch or smell that the two were feeling. In other words, the subtle placement of physical details in all five senses is the key to bringing your writing to life.

Easier said than done, right? Wrong! Here are some obvious places to inject more details into your writing:

1. In Names

We’ve been talking a lot about names the past few weeks (here, here, and here). Well, that’s because they’re so important—in real life, when we meet someone new, we typically learn their name. It should be the same in writing. Names are the one universal part of human experience. So use them!

2. In Character Descriptions

Introduce new characters by giving us more than just hair color/eye color. Sure, their physical appearance is important, but as someone once told me, “You don’t choose to be pretty. You’re born that way. It’s what you do with your looks that counts.”

So, in the same way, go beyond a character’s looks and focus on a key detail like a favorite concert t-shirt or the Beats headphones and pink iPod a character incessantly uses. Doing so makes that character come to life as a multidimensional person. For fantasy, use the wooden carved necklace a hunter never takes off or the moon-white earring of an assassin or the curved scars on a princess’ cheek. All of these little details can cut to the core of the personality of your character in seconds.

3. In Setting

Introduce each new setting using a minimum of two senses (usually sight would be essential). That means every time you have a new scene or your characters go to a new place or even enter a car, you should take a few seconds to describe the white leather lining of the seats, the peeling aqua paint, the smell of Chinese takeout lingering in the baby’s car seat. Let the place become real in your mind’s eye, then describe it so your readers can be engulfed by your story.

4. In Dialogue

Pepper your dialogue with gestures and descriptions. Make your characters interact with the setting: have your cleanliness-obsessed astronomer fiddle with her bottle of sanitation gel. Let your Rangers move around, checking that the horses are saddled properly, that the sentries are distracted.

Also, give your characters habitual gestures and hand motions to illustrate their speech—make your evil villain’s sidekick have a nervous habit of nodding, or maybe have your drama queen fiddle with her eyebrows when she’s nervous.

Whatever you do, add detail. Go back to each page of your writing and make sure you’ve added the necessary physical details so that, to your readers, your writing happens in a real place with real people. I guarantee you that you’ll learn a lot more about your story and your characters than you expect.

Can you think of any details you’ve read in stories lately that really stood out to you? Or what about in your own writing—written any cool details you’d like to share?

All photos courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.


  1. That was a really great post! Lots of helpful ideas. I find that personification in description really stands out to me when I'm reading something:)

    1. Thanks, Sunny! I agree; I love it when I read books that use those little details to make characters come to life. I think the best writing uses more of those personality details and actually less of the "hair color/eye color" descriptions. :)

  2. Thanks for the great post! I always have a hard time with description, especially when writing a rough draft. This should help.

    1. Thank you, Jill! So glad it can help. I think it's a great reminder for all of us (myself definitely included :) .


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