Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad

Using Detail to Bring Writing to Life

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by Kristen Coros

This article was first featured on the now-defunct Sowing the Seeds blog hosted by Vine Leaves Literary Journal

“If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete.” – William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style

Writing vignettes or other short pieces of fiction typically means that we have a limited number of words to work with, and accordingly, a great need to make each one count. We aim, with this kind of writing, to bring people, places or things to vibrant life within a relatively small space.

Great—but how do we do it?

One powerful tool at our disposal is specific, concrete detail.

Details are the building blocks of good description; they are persuasive, helping to convince us of what we’re being told. They also help us to accomplish a main aim of fiction, which is to give our reader sensory access to our writing—things to focus the (mind’s) eye on, things to imagine hearing, smelling, or touching. The following is an excerpt from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch:

Along Park Avenue, ranks of red tulips stood at attention as we sped by. Bollywood pop—turned down to a low, almost subliminal whine—spiraled and sparkled hypnotically, just at the threshold of my hearing. The leaves were just coming out on the trees. Delivery boys from D’Agostino’s and Gristede’s pushed carts laden with groceries; harried executive women in heels plunged down the sidewalk, dragging reluctant kindergartners behind them; a uniformed worker swept debris from the gutter into a dustpan on a stick; lawyers and stockbrockers held their palms out and knit their brows as they looked up at the sky.

Tartt’s sentences transport us to New York in spring, inviting us to see the bustle of people and the pops of colour provided by the flowers and the budding trees, to (just barely) hear a very specific kind of music, to feel the motion of a cab as it travels through the streets, and to sense that it might, at any moment, begin to rain.

Well-chosen details about the way a person moves, smells, talks, dresses, or habitually behaves also help to develop character. An example from Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness:

Every single night around ten o’clock Ray tells me that he’s hitting the hay. Along the way to his bedroom he’ll stop in the front hallway and place notes on top of his shoes to remind him of the things he has to do the next day.

With these two sentences, containing two key details—the same routine each night, the notes on the shoes—Toews sketches a man who is conscientious, habit-bound, and possibly forgetful.

Detail can also give form to concepts that we consider abstract, things like love or wealth or prejudice. The way a person speaks to a waiter can be revealing, as can whom he chooses to sit next to on a train, or whose eyes he avoids meeting en route. Consider the moment in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” when a tourist asks his driver to stop for a photo:

Mr. Kapasi pulled over to the side of the road as Mr. Das took a picture of a barefoot man, his head wrapped in a dirty turban, seated on top of a cart of grain sacks pulled by a pair of bullocks. Both the man and the bullocks were emaciated.

These uses of detail—making our writing a sensory experience, revealing aspects of character, bringing abstract concepts to life—also fit with the “show don’t tell” axiom we hold dear as writers of fiction. We don’t have to say that a character is anxious if we show her digging half-moons into her palm; we don’t have to explain that she enjoys casual dress if we mention her polka-dotted Crocs tan.

While there’s fun to be had in figuring out detail, a word of caution is needed: as with any piece of writing advice, it’s possible to carry this one too far. Detail can be overwhelming if it wanders into clinical territory, or if there is simply too much of it. The writer Flannery O’Connor once noted: “To say that fiction proceeds by the use of details does not mean the simple, mechanical piling-up of detail. Detail has to be controlled by some overall purpose, and every detail has to be put to work for you.” Stephen King echoes this point in his book On Writing, calling it “not just a question of how-to…it’s a question of how much to.” He advocates for “a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else,” advice that is well taken by the writer attempting to portray a person, place or thing using a modicum of words.

So we’re wise to be selective, and show those details that lend insight into the subject of our writing. Are there cobwebs on the old woman’s telephone? Do shingles on the roof of the formerly grand house now stick up like cowlicks? Did a visitor enter the living room without removing her mud-covered shoes? Sparing use of specific, concrete, and significant details like these can help our writing to make an indelible impression on the mind of a reader.

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2 thoughts on “Using Detail to Bring Writing to Life

  1. Pingback: Come Away With Me: Rooting Fiction in Place | Milchtoast

  2. Pingback: Shall I Compare Thee? Making Effective Use of Metaphor and Simile | Milchtoast

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