How to Bring Your Writing to Life With the Telling Detail

This week’s video explains how, in North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell uses a single “telling detail” to effectively take the place of a lengthy description.

Video Transcription:

In fiction, we’re unable to sketch every detail of our character’s actions, feelings, appearance, and surroundings. Particularly in the current trend of minimalistic descriptions, we’re lucky to get away with two solid paragraphs of description. This can present quite a problem for authors who want to paint a vivid picture in their readers’ imagination, but don’t want to risk boring them with excess information. The solution is a deft use of the “telling detail.”

Take, for example, this line from North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell’s classic tale of social revolution, in which a character fills up an awkward silence by occupying “himself in smoothing the nap of his hat with his coat-sleeve.” This is such a simple statement, but it not only perfectly conveys the mood of the character, it also provides a vivid image of the bygone beaver-skin hat this Victorian-era gentleman would have been wearing. In half a sentence, Gaskell’s telling detail accomplishes what she never would have been able to in a full description of the character’s appearance and clothing.

The telling detail is a single nuance that takes the place of entire pages of description. We might spend hundreds of words trying to portray the shift of sunlight on water, but if we’re able to hit upon just the right telling detail, that’s all we’ll need to cause our image to explode into our reader’s mind with more force and color than we could ever hope to share through mere explanation. Discovering the telling detail is largely a matter of serendipity, trial and error, and a keen observatory eye. Don’t allow yourself to settle for the obvious details; dig beneath the surface until you find one that transforms your scene.

Tell me your opinion: What’s the last telling detail you used in your work-in-progress?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.


  1. great great advice, thanks KM! I try to keep this in my focus as I’m writing, but like you said, it takes practice. And serendipity! 😀

  2. If that scene is the one I believe it is – you gotta love Mr. Thornton! (All right, well, you don’t have to, but I do.) There is a place, I believe, for more lengthy descriptive passages, but I do love it when authors can drop little things like that in the midst of scenes where further explanation would be distracting.

  3. This is great advice. A lot of nuance can be conveyed with these little details.

  4. Funny you should mention the hat scene as a great way to ‘tell’, because just last night in my WIP I told how my priest was nervous by thumping his hat against his leg. Great topic especially with all the “show” topics out there.

    I don’t know if I have the telling detail down yet but I’ll be working on it and thinking about it when I do revisions.

  5. One detail can convey so much emotion–it’s why they have close-ups in movies.

  6. @LTM: Isn’t that a great word?

    @Abigail: I’ll have to agree with you on loving Mr. Thornton. Great story, great characters.

    @Katie: It’s beautifully shocking how one little detail can give readers all the tools they need to mentally paint the whole picture.

    @Kate: See? Great mind think alike! Practice makes perfect on the telling detail, but just being aware of it is half the battle.

    @Galadriel: Movies have a big advantage when it comes to detail, because they can show an entire scene in the time it takes authors to point out one detail. That’s what makes the telling detail such an important weapon in our arsenal.

  7. Yes, I REALLY admire a succinct bit of detail! So much better than a long grocery list of hair and eye color, etc. ;o) Great point and reminder, thanks!

  8. Jerry Jenkins once made the comment that an editor had complained about his lack of description for a “computer nerd” character. Jenkins asked the editor how he envisioned the character, and the editor rattled off an impressively complete and vivid description. Jenkins then made the the point that if the editor could see the character *that* clearly, just from the Jenkins’s “computer nerd” descriptor, the character hardly needed a fuller description.

  9. I’ve been having to do the reverse — keep the details out of the story. I’m heavily a big picture thinker and am extremely bad with details. So bad that I can’t tell what’s good, what’s bad, or when I’ve done too much until I’ve done way, way too much.

  10. A good beta reader or two can be invaluable in helping you figure out what works and what doesn’t. I would suggest dumping in all the details you can think of, then stepping back for few days before reevaluating and figuring out what the scene requires.

  11. Ahem. I tried that. That’s one of the reasons I’m having to revise the novel. When I said way too much, I meant, way, way, way, way too much. Visual Image: Instead of a house with a lot of clutter, it looked like a hoarder’s house. It was so bad that parts of the story were literally crowded out by the details. A beta wouldn’t have even known where to start (one gave up). So the only way I can manage them is to focus on the big picture and work inwards, making sure everything connects together with everything else. That gives me much better control and keeps the details from exploding on the story.

  12. LOL In that case, let me congratulate you for having the guts to tackle such a big project and wish you all kinds of success in revising it. Cutting down your word count is always an adventure in gritting your teeth. At least you can be sure this is exercise from which you’ll glean all kinds of experience.

  13. It actually ran too short, K.M. All details and little story. So I’m having to take pieces of what I can salvage and create new. I’d love the day where I could cut a story that was too long.

  14. Telling details are important, but you have to choose wisely only those that add something meaningful to the character or the story. As you say, dig deep to find those that really do transform the scene.

    Excellent post!
    Ann Carbine Best’s Long Journey Home

  15. Details for the sake of details rarely do anything but clutter up the scene and get in the way of what the author is trying to say. Better to err on the side of too few than too many.

  16. What great advice! The trick is picking the right telling detail. Hmmmm….

  17. If that part were easy, everyone would be a bestselling author!

  18. I really like your example from North and South of the character, “smoothing the nap of his hat with his coat sleeve.” It evokes more than the era and the character’s state of mind — it’s a tactile reference the reader can almost feel.

    I’ll hang on to this excellent advice as I plod along on the first draft of my WIP.

  19. It’s a fabulous detail. Absolutely jumped off the page and painted the entire scene for me. Who says the old classic authors didn’t know how to be succinct?

  20. The wordy writer in me, who is in love with details, latched onto this cool tool. Less really can be more effective. Thanks for sharing a tip I can put right to use, K.M.

  21. Simplicity is powerful. Not opulent maybe (although there’s definitely a place for opulence now and then), but most of the time our writing requires power more than it does fancy-dancies.

  22. The blog is very good!

  23. I put “the telling detail” on a sticky note above my desk where I’ll see it for a few weeks. I’m hoping the reminder will help me build the habit of searching for the telling detail. Thanks for this suggestion.

  24. @Nelson: Thanks for stopping by!

    @Mgudlewski: Great idea! Do you post the sticky note before or after you’ve written the scene?

  25. I’m putting it above the computer and leaving it there indefinitely! So I guess the answer is: before, during and after writing the scene. It can’t hurt!

  26. Oh, silly me. :p I thought you were talking about specific telling details from your scenes. Glad you enjoyed the post so much!

  27. One of the latest telling details in my own work-in-progress is a poster in a character’s room. The single line about the poster featuring a photo of nuclear-ravaged Rome both gives an insight into the character’s depression, and also hints at the alternate history in the science fiction setting.

    Thank you for bringing up this topic, as it’s been something I’ve been working on in my work to reduce the info dumps.

  28. Ooh, I like that alternate-history idea. Great detail!

  29. Wow, really profound when you think about it. Sometimes a gesture says a thousand words.

  30. Exactly. If we can *show* readers that one gesture, we can avoid pages of telling.

  31. I find it interesting that you call this a “telling detail” because I would say it is the opposite. I’m sure you’ve heard the mantra, “show; don’t tell.” What you are describing would be what I would call showing it instead of telling it. That is, you are showing how the character is reacting, rather than just telling the reader what they are suppose to think he feels. Right now publishers are big on their writers showing and not telling, to the point where “tell” is almost a bad word, though that’s an exaggeration.

    Telling example: Brad was nervous.
    Showing example: Brad licked his lips and smoothed back his cowlick for the fifteenth time.

    I just published a booklet on this concept, actually. 🙂

  32. Yes, I’ve always thought it was a pretty non-intuitive term for what it’s describing. If I had coined it, I would have made it “showing detail”!

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