small and vital details

A story I was writing left me cold. I couldn’t figure out why. The plot was decent, the characters seemed plausible, the setting intriguing. But the whole thing was flat and lifeless.

I tried the usual things — asking myself questions about the characters so I could know them better. Getting rid of redundant phrases and adjectives. Powering up the verbs.

The story was still not right.

So I started adding details.

Instead of the character complaining that her husband ‘wanted the same foods every day’, the wife despaired that her husband wanted ‘steak or fried chicken day after day’.

Instead of the woman buying the cat ‘expensive toys’, I wrote she bought the cat ‘mouse toys and a plush bed he ignored, preferring to sleep in the armchair’.

Instead of a boy fearing ‘bugs and spiderwebs’ in a cellar, he feared ‘spiderwebs and bugs as long as his boy fingers’.

And suddenly the story was real. I believed it. I could see the plush cat bed that Elvis the cat ignored, I could picture the husband chewing through his steak (or fried chicken) night after night, and I could see those long, black bugs, scuttling away.

I realised how details can make a story true. As readers, we buy into a story, (or a poem, a screenplay, a play) if these ‘facts’ give it the ring of truth. They are small and vital details.

19 thoughts on “small and vital details

    • Oh, it’s always a struggle for me. I seem to write something and hate the first draft every single time. It’s no good for the confidence! So I thought maybe if I write about it, someone else will feel a bit better, and also I might remember for next time that each story has to go through all these stages of being bad, then slightly better, then better again, as I use tools and tricks to improve it.
      Are you writing any stories or other works at the moment Maureen? I’m loving your blog writing!

      • It’s funny, because I’m the opposite–I like at least 95% of my first drafts. Everything I write seems real to me, to the extent that I get upset for my poor, long-suffering characters. To a large degree that might be because ideation is one of my strongest personality traits–the core idea is what moves me more often than the imagery used to express the idea.

        But I’m concerned that I’m essentially writing to my own predilections, the experience within in my head, so my writing impacts me much more than anyone else. So, I suspect the difference between your experience and mine is that you’re more evolved as a writer, better than me at analysing weaknesses and getting out of your own head and your own experience.

        Perhaps this “add detail” suggestion will help me with that, adding imagery that bridges the gap between what I see in my head, and what other people get from my writing. The challenge will be changing my process so those details come naturally in the writing process rather than as flourishes that are added in a second or third draft. In any case, I’m adding this to my list of “common errors I make that need to be examined and addressed every time”.

  1. Adding those specific details completely lifts a whole scene. I know this to be true and yet am guilty of forgetting it all the time. Can’t wait to read your next story!

    • I forget too! And so many times I forget that most of writing is doing all this – the re-writing. In the dreamy distant future I hope to write a first draft without panicking but so far it seems I write, then panic, as night follows day. 🙂
      Hope your writing is going well Alyssa! x

  2. I loved your line about the boy and bugs as long as his boy fingers!
    When I read, it’s often the small, unexpected details that strike me and linger in my mind for a while.
    Happy writing!

  3. Hi Richard (can’t reply to your comment where it is so replying down here 🙂 ),

    Thanks so much for your thoughts about this post. I’m so jealous that you’re able to like your work at the first draft stage! You obviously have a strong sense of where you’re going with the story, and know what the end result will be. I’m a bit of a meandering writer, which is sometimes fun but can also be demoralising!

    Having read your books, I totally agree that your work has fantastic storylines. I don’t normally read that genre, but I was really gripped by the plot and spoke to several family members and friends about how clever and compelling the books were.

    I don’t think I’m ‘more evolved’ as a writer at all – I think I get an idea of some emotion or situation I’m interested in, and the full storyline comes later, whereas maybe you develop a clear story and then you flesh out what each character is feeling along the way? We’re each just coming at the work from different angles, and creating our distinctive styles.

    Great to hear from you and talk writing with you! x

  4. The interesting thing about “The Battlefield Abductions” (my first novel), is that it was deliberately designed to be the simplest novel I could write.

    Believing that my descriptions were probably one of the weakest parts of my writing, I deliberately limited the setting and the cast of characters to an huge degree (which might seem like a big handicap to writing an interesting novel, but “12 Angry Men” won the Best Picture Oscar). Worried about managing the scope, clueless about how much stuff could happen in a chapter, and concerned about the story structure needing to change, I basically wrote a book of Lego blocks, where chapters and scenes could be shuffled about relatively easily.

    My subsequent novels are slowly stepping away from that model and require a lot more outlining, but I’m still not confident writing something with a lot of moving parts that simultaneously requires a lot of cohesion.

    I actually do think it is a more evolved technique you’re doing. To me, to a significant degree it’s the difference between “show” and “tell”. Tell is occasionally right and much easier for most people, but I think in novel-writing, show is almost always what causes the connection to the reader, and is much harder for most people to do well instinctively. But recognizing the issue as an author, I’m hoping to make “show” more natural.

    Your strategy of writing from the emotion is interesting to me–I feel like it could make for a powerful story starting from an emotional core, but it seems much easier for short stories than novels. Thinking about novel-length works that might have taken that approach successfully (but excluding obvious things like romances), I’d throw “The Road” and “The Pursuit of Happyness” into that bucket–both really depressing works. It makes me wonder about novels with that approach that aren’t about love or why the world is nothing but horrible.

    When thinking of ideas, I always start from an idea/situation, and never start from an emotion. Basically, all my developments are one of three things: 1. the “natural horrible consequence” of the characters living in their world. 2. an interesting idea that compels exploration. 3. the character experiencing their personal hell.

    The third one is extremely important because I think it generalizes to almost all fiction. It reminds me of what Joss Whedon said about his experiences creating “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, something like, “We weren’t doing too well in the ratings, but then we figured it out. The crueler we were to Buffy, the higher the ratings we’d get.” The final episode of Season 2 is a pretty good example of the concept.

    • Yes, writing a novel must be a whole different beast (so to speak!) and I don’t think a writer can get away with just wandering their way through the first draft. Or at least, if they do, I think they end up having to do multiple subsequent drafts which are more like complete overhauls/rewrites of the book! (from what I’ve read of novelists’ experiences) I am completely daunted by the idea of writing a novel and I take my hat off to anyone who has managed to do something so complex.

      I like your plot developments because they’re all fascinating – and the last one I think everyone is drawn to because we all secretly fear it. So I can see why the writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer found that horrible happenings for Buffy meant better ratings!

      I look forward to reading more of your work in the future.

    • Hi Nicole, hope everything is going well with you and your writing, too. Yes, I often forget to use the ‘fine brush’ but I’m trying to improve, too. Thanks for your comment 🙂

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