The above is an entrée description from the menu of Mat and Naddie's, a neighborhood restaurant in New Orleans' Riverbend area. Which would you rather order, "Cheese-Stuffed Cannelloni" or an entrée whose menu description tells you what you are getting and makes you eager for it to arrive? I doubt I'm unique in preferring lovingly detailed descriptions in the menu.
Fiction writers as well as menu writers need to sell an entire sensory experience with a few carefully chosen words, the "significant details."
What makes details significant? I'll give an example from my ancient copy of Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds: Eastern Land and Water Birds. Peterson doesn't bother describing each species completely; each bird could fill a book. Instead, he describes each species in a third of a page or less.
Use Important, not Unimportant, Details
How does Peterson describe a bird so compactly? He first lists the features shared within the taxonomic family and then notes for each species only the details that help the birdwatcher distinguish one species from another. He doesn't use photographs of individual birds; instead, he draws a generic member of each species and sketches in the details most important for identification. For example, on page 88, he says the Least Tern is notable for being very small and having a yellow bill. Adults have yellow feet.
Very small; yellow bill; yellow feet in adults: Three significant details are all you need to know to identify the Least Term.
For the fiction writer, important details are those that are, well, important. Few people go through life noting every sound, every sight, every smell, every taste, and every feeling. That would be unnecessary data overload. Instead, the brain filters incoming data for what's relevant—such as a red light or a train whistle—or interesting.
Viewpoint characters are people too. Put a book's characters all in the same small room, and:
- The claustrophobic character cringes because the walls and ceiling close in.
- The self-appointed leader frowns because the circular table has no head for him to sit at.
- The architect compares the placement of the doors and windows with where she would have put them.
- The artist leaves the others to study an unusual painting on the wall.
Use Significant, not Insignificant, Details
Some decisions about details must transcend the characters. If a character's blue eyes or the broken spine of the pine tree are crucial to the plot, you must mention these early in the book, whether or not they would normally be important to any of the characters.
Details should always be in the book for at least one reason, preferably more. For example, the examples above of "important details" enlighten us about the characters. Details can also create suspense, reinforce the theme, fill out the world, draw the reader's attention to something important, and advance the plot.
Use Specific, not Generic, Details
The fiction writer should also follow Peterson's example by avoiding generic details ("the jail cell had a barred window") and focusing on the specific, unique traits of a person, place, thing, or action, what separates that one from all others ("Jimmy took one look at the Pepto Bismol–pink walls of the jail cell and his stomach roiled").
What you don't describe, the reader fills in from experience. So there's no need to describe what your typical reader is familiar with. Focus instead on what is distinctive. Zoom in on the homeless person's Harvard class ring, not their shopping cart piled with blankets.
Specific details draw the reader into the story and make it feel more real. For that reason, it's good to include details from all the senses (not just sight) and to use strong nouns and verbs to bring the scene to life.
Why use nouns and verbs instead of adjectives to introduce details?
- Doing so forces you to focus on action instead of passive description.
- "Show, don't tell."
- Details can fill more roles when they are revealed through action. Take this sentence: "'Lovely fuchsia dress, Emily,' Livia said to the new widow." We learn not only that Emily is wearing a hot-pink dress but also that Emily is flouting the social conventions of mourning and that Livia is catty. We wonder about Emily's choice of dress. Did Emily dislike her husband, or is she so poor she has only a few dresses, none black? Why is Livia cruel to Emily, and is she cruel to everyone?
A Final Word
One could write entire books on using details (and people have). I'll end here with advice from Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White. Their rule 16 for composition is, "Use definite, specific, concrete language," and they comment:
The surest way to arouse and hold the reader's attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.
What are your favorite rules of thumb for writing details? Do you agree with my three?
Thanks for stopping by. My next post here at Novel Spaces will appear January 21, when I will talk about how professional organizers can help writers.