Writing advice

The Devil in the Details

One of the keys to successful fiction of any kind is easy to say but much harder to execute. It’s filling your fiction with carefully chosen detail. Details help create what the literary critics call verisimilitude: the illusion of reality the work builds in the reader’s imagination.

Consider two similar sentences.

Joe got in his car and drove away.

Okay. Good enough. It’s a simple, declarative sentence that adequately describes the action and moves the narrative along.

Now take the same sentence and add some detail.

Joe slid behind the wheel of his BMW convertible, popped the clutch, and raced away.

Doesn’t the second example ratchet up the realism a bit? Instead of a generic action, now the reader has a more specific picture in her mind’s eye. Not only that, but it adds something to the characterization of Joe. A young man (for example) driving a BMW convertible is perceived differently than one driving a twenty-year-old Toyota. Even if it’s the same young man.

It’s all in the details.

Stephen King is one of the best at using such details. Read virtually any of his works and pay attention to the details he weaves into his stories. He never has characters just listening to the radio, or watching television. They are listening to a specific song on the radio, watching a certain program on the television. His characters also often follow specific fads (often from a particular time period) and use specific slang when they speak. All this helps create a sense of reality in the reader’s imagination, even when the subject of the story itself is utterly fantastic.

It’s all about the details.

Imagine your character’s home. What, if anything, is hanging on the walls? Whatever you choose, it will add realism and a touch of character. The person living with her walls bare is different from the person surrounded by family portraits, Monet prints, or Elvis on black velvet. Whatever the choice, it adds to the realism.

The same is true for clothing/fashion, preferred music, movies and television shows, etc. The more detail, the better.

However, I must add a warning here. Detail improves your fiction, but, like most things, moderation is essential. As much as detail can improve your fiction, you don’t want to bombard your reader with laundry lists of descriptive details. We’ve all read works where the narrative comes to screeching halt while the author gives us an inventory of some character’s livingroom. That isn’t what we want. Aim for for an accurate, revealing sketch, rather than a fully rendered portrait. Our readers want to imagine the story for themselves, they just want some thoughtful guidance.

Think Hemingway, rather than Dickens.

So where do we, as writers, find these details for our fiction? The easy answer is from the world around us. We’re surrounded by living breathing characters and locations. We just have to pay attention. Observe the details of the world around you. What does your dinner companion do with her hands while you’re talking? What is your best friend’s livingroom furniture like? Your bosses? What kind of cars do your daughter’s friends drive? Do the boys drive different types than the girls? What do your co-workers talk about in the break room?

Pay attention. Take notes (not in front of them, of course) and secret them away. You never know when one of these little details will make the difference in your fiction.


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