Do You Have the Two Necessary Skills for Using Details to Bring Fiction to Life

Do You Have the Two Necessary Skills for Using Details to Bring Your Fiction to Life?

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. They decide whether a story will just lie there on the page–or whether you’ll be able to bring your fiction to life.

You can write the most enthralling story ever told, but if you don’t artfully wield the details to bring your fiction to life, your story will never live up to its full potential. As artists, we can’t risk concentrating 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.

How to Use Details in Your Description to Bring Your Fiction to Life

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 evocative details.

Suddenly, readers can feel the nubbly rind under their fingers; they can smell the delicate spray as the skin is pulled back; they 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 their throat; the first sip warms them all the way down their chests to their stomachs.

Are You Making the Most of “Telling Details” in Your Writing?

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 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:

secrets kristen heitzmannHe 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? Thanks to Heitzmann’s skill in representing the ordinary, this familiar detail instantly elevates her scene.

The Two Skills You’ll Need to Use Details in Your Stories

The key to skillful detailing is twofold:

1. It means both utilizing and looking past the obvious.

2. It means a adept 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. These tiny, often insignificant details make all the difference in creating prose so powerful it paints living pictures in your readers’ minds.

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. The information you imparted here and your presentation impress me in a myriad of ways. Your words are a pleasure to read and the accompanying wisdom is a priceless bonus.

    Yup, ya done real good, Outlaw Lady.

  2. Your writing is so beautiful. Thanks for sharing this insight with us. I love that you said detail doesn’t need to be told in long paragraphs but sometimes simple words or phrases can be just enough. Today, it seems people don’t have time for long winded prose, no matter how beautiful it is. But if you can say it all in a few words that still pack a punch, you’ve done great!

  3. Your post always make me feel like playing with words. Thanks for the added inspiration.

  4. All three of you are very sweet! Thank you for humbling me with your kind words. I’m so glad the post was an inspiration to you!

  5. You’re always inspiring, Katie!

  6. Aww, thanks, Linda!

  7. Excellent article. How much detail becomes too much detail? Always the questions that writers need to answer. One of my characters whittled — not seen much these days, but this was an old sea captain and this detail gave me the perfect opportunity to show his patience and tenacity, both threads of his character that added to what I needed this secondary character to accomplish on page. I love the little detail. It’s more like watching real-life.
    Thanks for sharing.

  8. “Watching real life” sums it up beautifully. That’s what I’m going for in my fiction. In the post I talked mostly about sedentary details: the things we see and feel around us everyday. But the character details – *those* are the really special details! Congratulations for having found such a convincing one!

  9. I’m reading this at the perfect time–got a new short story that is lacking something…and now I know what. THANK YOU for inspiration today 🙂

  10. Well, I’m so glad you found it pertinent! Have fun reshaping your story!

  11. Everytime I come to your blog I leave with some great info!!!

  12. Thanks so much! I’m glad you keep stopping by!

  13. Marie W. says

    WOW! I love your podcast! I would like to write more, but I am having this insatiable craving for an orange and a cup of coffee. Got to go.

  14. LOL That orange pic is pretty tantalizing, isn’t it?

  15. Almost 5 years after you wrote this and your advice is still resonant. I love when, in the middle of reading a long novel, the writer sprinkles in sentences of such remarkable beauty that I must put down the novel and let them sink into the depths of my soul. To me, those moments are what makes a novel and an author memorable.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree. The great advantage that written fiction has over movies is (surprise!) the words. Beautiful words make the stories go round.

  16. M.L. Bull says

    Great post! I try to describe details as best as I can, but not too complicated either. Too “flowery” descriptions can make sentences longer than needed, and maybe even confuse some readers. Not everyone knows what words like tentative, ambiguous, or obstinate means. I know a couple times I had to look up words from stories just to find out what the author was talking about. Lol :p I believe a writer can be just as creative using simpler words as they can large, more flowery words. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree. The beauty of the telling detail is that evokes clarity without needing to be verbose.

  17. Thanks for another great post! This is actually very imporant, to find THE detail that will bring what you want to describe to life. I think often that is the detail you don´t take for granted, the one detail that can tell you something else.

    I remember in my novel I had to describe a hallway and I was struggling with it. Suddenly, it was enough to add an inner garden on the left side to bring it to life.

    Details are very powerful, yes 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Even just in the way you describe it here, it immediately brought your setting to life!

  18. thomas h cullen says

    It lacks readability (because of its extreme insularity), but The Representative does in fact have two of the best qualities.. like a painting, asking to be treated (being the exception to the rule, in this case it would appear), and then offering to its consumer in return heaps of enticing pictures to fill their imagination.

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