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How to Bring Your Writing to Life With the Telling Detail

telling detailIn fiction, authors aren’t always able to sketch every detail of a character’s actions, feelings, appearance, and surroundings. Particularly in the current trend of minimalistic descriptions, we’re lucky to get away with even two 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 bore them with excess information.

The solution is a deft use of the “telling detail.”

North and South Elizabeth GaskellTake, 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. You might spend hundreds of words trying to portray the shift of sunlight on water, but if you’re able to hit upon just the right telling detail, that’s all you’ll need to cause your image to explode into your readers’ minds with more force and color than you 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 obvious details; dig beneath the surface until you find one that transforms your scene.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s the last telling detail you can remember using in your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

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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.

Comments

  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!
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  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”!

  33. Posts like this are why I tell my students you’re my favorite creative writing blogger. Thanks for being spot on … again. I also tell them, even though I try hard to avoid describing, I often get compliments on my descriptions. I think this post explains why that happens.

  34. Aaron Jacob Little says

    I tried to do something like this in this example from what I’m writing. I tried to combine mood, appearance and foreshadowing in three sentences … “She wanted to cross her legs and let her foot shake. The heels of her white pumps remained on the floor below her smart, grey slacks. A white blouse, buttoned to her throat, completed the outfit — the last she would ever wear.”

  35. Barbara Martinez says

    I tried to show how money was so important to my MC … “She unhooked the safety pin holding her pocket closed and reached inside for her change purse. Her thumb and forefinger pressed the clasp apart and she dropped the coins in one at a time. Closing the clasp, she put it back in her pocket and reattached the safety pin, double checking to be sure it was secure and patting her pocket for good measure. Not much money, but enough to buy a few necessities.” Is this the sort of thing you’re talking about?

  36. Lindsey Russell says

    I’m a slow writer. I’ve found the quickest way (for me) is to write dialogue heavy for the first draft then add more narrative where necessary, along with internal thought, actions, reactions, and observations. If the dialogue is really rattling along these additions will often be brief so is this what you mean:

    “Should I go to the police? Do you think this man Toby has harmed Izzy? You hear such stories about apparently charming men who turn violent to women at the slightest provocation,” Hannah said.

    “That’s a possibility.” Maggie could see Hannah nervously chewing her bottom lip. Time to ratchet up the tension? “If there is a Toby.”

    “Why would she make him up?”

    “Perhaps she didn’t, perhaps Brian did.”

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