Most of the time when we think of great stories, we think of just that: stories. We don’t often think about the bits and pieces that make up the composite whole, the 206 different bones beneath the polished flesh, the mosaic chips that form the complete picture. But it’s these bits, bones, and chips that decide whether a story is the entertainment of an hour or a lasting piece of literature.
We can write the most enthralling story ever told, but if we don’t artfully wield the details of that story, it will never live up to its full potential. As artists, we can’t avoid looking at the big picture at the expense of even the tiniest detail. Author and teacher Gary Provost wrote:
Writing is not a visual art. It is a symphony, not an oil painting. It is the shattering, not the glass. It is the ringing, not the bell. The words you write make sounds, and when the sounds satisfy the reader’s ear, your writing works.It’s easy enough to write about someone peeling an orange or drinking a cup of coffee. And since most readers have both peeled and drunk, the author doesn’t have an obligation to explain these actions in detail. Or does he?
Ultimately, saying a character peeled an orange is more than sufficient to get the job done. Outlining every motion his fingers make to complete the process would be both extraneous and excessive. But a skillful author knows better than to let the opportunity pass without the deft insertion of the kind of details that can bring even this ordinary action to life for the reader. Suddenly, the reader can feel the nubbly rind under his fingers; he can smell the delicate spray as the skin is pulled back; he can see the opalescent beads of orange as the fruit is broken open. White fingerprints appear on the steamy side of the coffee mug; the rich scent of a Kenyan blend catches in the back of his throat; the first sip warms him all the way down his chest to his stomach.
These subtle touches of vibrancy are often referred to as “telling details.” It’s our job to find not just any detail, but the detail. We don’t need lengthy paragraphs of description; sometimes all it takes to animate a scene right before a reader’s eyes is to highlight the one detail that makes it all pop. Suspense author Kristen Heitzmann is particularly talented in this area. In her novel Secrets, she breathes life into even something so mundane as a simple “Help Wanted” sign:
He motioned through the wide doorway to the sun in the front-parlor window. The sun-backed, reversed letters did form a Help Wanted sign, and along with her name and phone number she had written in bold black the position available: maid/cook.“Sun-backed, reversed letters”: four simple words that completely transform an ordinary descriptive passage into a vivid image. How many of us have seen just such a sign from the inside of a building, the letters backward because they face the street, the sun shining through the white paper that surrounds the black lettering? We’ve all witnessed just such a moment, but thanks to Heitzmann’s skill in representing the ordinary, it instantly elevates her scene.
The key to skillful detailing is twofold:
- 1. It means both utilizing and looking past the obvious.
- 2. It means a skillful use of specific nouns and vibrant verbs. The letters are “reversed” and “sun-backed.” The orange rind is “nubbly,” the fruit “opalescent beads.” The window “shatters.”
Play with your prose, toying with the descriptions, the words, the sounds, until you find just the right combination to evoke the telling details. It is these tiny, often insignificant details that make all the difference in creating prose so powerful it paints living pictures in your readers’ minds.
Click “Play” to Listen to Audio Version. Click here to subscribe to Wordplay: The Podcast RSS updates.
Story by K.M. Weiland