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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. 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”!

  9. 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.

  10. 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.”

  11. 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?

  12. 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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