Like many artists, writers are a hyper observant breed. We don’t just see water in a swimming pool. We notice how the light shines through the water, creating wobbly web-like patterns on the blue concrete floor below.
When others look to the sky, they may see birds and planes flying overhead. And we see those things, too. But we also take into account that a shadow is cast by these objects. On a clear bright day, a following patch of darkness will glide over the grass and concrete in the wake of a scavenging crow. Your friend doesn’t just smile at the compliment you pay her, she beams, making the very slight gap in her front teeth all the more endearing.
Details are everywhere. Painters in particular are well aware of this. Ever watch one of those Bob Ross TV spots? There he is, grinning and painting, laying down the foundation of his work. Then, gradually, one brush stroke at a time, he builds up to a fully formed landscape. Tree, lakes, foliage, waterfalls, and mountains enshrouded by mist arise magically from mere smears and blobs of paint. And you can tell he has an eye for detail because, when he’s done, it looks real.
As writers, essentially, we’re after creating same effect, only with words as our medium. Even if we’re writing about flying porcupines or dragons or epic outer space battles, we still want our audience to be able to believe in the environment in which we’ve placed our characters. Details help us to cast our veil of illusion over our audience, to draw them in to our world, and smudge reality out.
Of course, we don’t want to overdo it. Too much attention to detail can interrupt the flow of your story, and slow the pacing. The trick is be like Bob Ross and fill in just enough to suggest reality. After all, Mr. Ross doesn’t paint individual leaves. You can’t stare at one of his paintings and count the blades of grass. However, looking at the painting as a whole, there still appears to be individual leaves. Even though he’s created whole beds of grass from one or two well-placed strokes, it still seems as if all the blades are accounted for. There is shadow as well as light, reflections and also the sense that the picture we’re viewing continues off the canvas in all directions.
Check out this opening passage from The Fall of the House of Usher by Poe:
DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country ; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.
Even though this is only one sentence, Poe provides us with quite a lot of information regarding his narrator’s surroundings. We can glean from this opening that the environment is bleak. He shows us that the clouds are low and tells us that it’s autumn. He also tells us that he’s in the country. Our brains, in response, might imagine craggy and decaying trees even though he never expressly tells us that there are any trees at all. Those low clouds are dark in my mind’s eye even though Poe doesn’t tell me that either. “Oppressive” kind of does the trick there. Actually, I’m not putting a lot of color in this countryside at all because of that word “dreary.” Also, night is approaching. Time has passed. It’s gone from daylight to dusk, and Poe conveys this in a less straight-forward and more poetic way with the “shades of evening,” line. The shadows are closing in and all of this adds to a growing sense of claustrophobia that will underscore the entire tale.
Poe gives us a lot of descriptive terms in this first sentence, but you’ll notice he doesn’t tell us every single minute detail. Like Bob Ross, he suggests. We, as the readers, do the rest.
Of course, the inclusion of details in our writing has a much longer reach than just how we paint a character’s surroundings. What about the characters themselves? Harry Potter wears glasses. That tells me his eye-sight isn’t great. Wrap your protagonist in a wool scarf and, before you can mention the temperature, your readers will know it is winter. And those are just the surface details.
Take a look at this passage I’ve constructed below.
The ten to fifteen seconds it took for the bus to draw to a complete stop were Mark’s favorite of the day. Like always, he waited for her to stand from the bench first. That way, he could sidle close without it seeming too awkward. They were, of course, all waiting to board the same bus.
Today, her bubble gum smelled of watermelon. Though Mark didn’t much care for watermelon, he did like the Gardena perfume she wore. It reminded him of the spring that seemed so far away.
In these paragraphs, the reader can determine that the characters are waiting at a bus stop, even though I don’t say that outright. It’s suggested that this is a daily routine and also that the whole scenario has been going on for some time. A reader might also perceive that Mark has a crush on the unnamed female character though that’s not spelled out either. I never mention exactly how close the characters are to one another, but that Mark can smell her perfume and the flavor of her bubble gum suggests that they are quite close indeed.
We all know the rule of “Show don’t’ tell,” and I know that I’m approaching that same advice from the angle of incorporating details. And I think that, remembering that timeless writing rule can be a good guideline that will help you to determine what types of details to include and also aid you in deciphering what might be too much. The details that you paint into your individual story should fit in with “showing” your reader your world, the ins and outs of the people populating the pages of your tale and the heart of the story itself.
Are the details you’re including necessary to the story? Do they add to mood and theme? Do they provide important information? Do they help things to feel real? (Smell in particular can heighten the reality of a scene.)
These questions are often best saved for the revision process, when you will know better what your story is and isn’t. They’re good to have in the back of your mind as you go, though.
A good writing exercise to practice adding and incorporating details is place your character in a setting, and never mention by name what that setting is.
For example, you could write about your character waiting at the dentist without using the word “dentist” or “waiting room.”
What sounds does he hear and how do they affect him? What does he smell? How is he feeling? Maybe he rubs his jaw in anticipation. Or does he check his watch? On that note, a business man might have a Rolex while the athletic type might have a sport’s watch.
The dentist I had when I was a kid used to listen to and sing along with opera music. He had civil war paintings hanging on all of the walls, too. Those things always creeped me out. Including those details would be an interesting way to suggest creepiness to my audience and convey information about the dentist, too, without my telling everyone outright that things are weird.
Ultimately, details should enrich your story, adding contour and dimension to your tale the same way details add to other art forms like paintings, drawings, sculptures, movies, plays and dance. Be sparing with adjectives and adverbs. Be subtle and remember to trust your readers to fill in the blanks and also to pick up on the important stuff you have taken care to sprinkle throughout.