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 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. 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!

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

  3. 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.

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

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

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

  7. 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. 🙂

  8. 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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