I’d like to make an admission: I don’t sit in cafes, or classrooms, or at the local Home Depot listening to people’s conversations to “hear” what they’re saying. I don’t intentionally focus on dialects of every single place that my characters visit—although I’m aware of them, because most of my novels and short stories are set in places I’ve either lived or visited for extended periods of time. I know I should pay more attention, or maybe I think I know I should, but I don’t. I know writers who record conversations, or take notes, or sift through movies, and it seems to help, because they do write great dialogue. But it’s not for me. And the funny thing about it is, I’ve been told I’m particularly good at dialogue. Go figure.
The details, or the descriptive language I write is minimal, at least when I’m writing the first draft. I may add details later—adjectives, deeper dives into setting description, a word or two in Spanish if I’m writing about Spain or Miami (I was born in Miami and lived in Spain, and Miami, in particular, uses a lot of Spanglish)—but for me, anyway, it’s not something I focus heavily on when I first get going. But that’s my process; it may not be yours.
John Gardner says,
“The novelist gives you such details about the streets, stores, weather, politics, and concerns of Cleveland (or wherever the setting is) and such details about the looks, gestures, and experiences of his characters that we cannot help believing that the story he tells us is true.”
I think that’s what every great piece of fiction should do, which I don’t think anyone would push back on. But how you get there and the details you use to make that happen are yours and yours alone to decipher, based on your style (as well as whatever you’ve picked up and/or “stolen” from other writers who you believe have done it well. How to Enhance Your Fiction by Getting the Details Just Right takes talent (and hard work), and it allows readers the ability to smell the newly blossomed gardenias your characters have growing on the side of the barn. The gardenias that hide the Goodman 3 Ton air conditioner condenser that keeps the barn usable during the hot summer days. It takes multiple drafts to create the feeling a character might have at suddenly facing an empty house after a tragic accident takes the lives of her family. You wouldn’t just write, “She walked in and the house was empty,” would you? You could. But would that allow your reader to feel what our newly widowed character experiences? Probably not. You’d need to incorporate enough detail to help your readers get a true picture of what it’s like to find your entire life destroyed. And that’s hard work.
Noah Hawley, in Before the Fall, starts a chapter called “Orphans,” like this: “Eleanor remembers when they were girls. There was no yours and mine. Everything she and Maggie owned was communal, the hairbrush, the striped and polka-dot dresses, the hand-me-down Raggedy Ann and Andy. They used to sit in the farmhouse sink, facing the mirror, and brush each other’s hair—a record on in the living room—Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie or the Chieftains—the sounds of their father cooking.”
Packed in those four sentences, Hawley gives the reader a ton of backstory populated with details that let the reader know exactly who these women are, how they became who they are, how they feel or felt about each other, and what was going on around them. And he does this through the details: “There was no yours and mine.” “Everything . . . was communal,” the list he writes that follows: "the hairbrush, the striped and polka-dot dresses, the hand-me-down Raggedy Ann and Andy." These are all details that allow the reader to “see” for themselves exactly what Eleanor and Maggie saw. We know the music they listened to. We have a good sense of the time period, because there’s “a record playing in the living room,” (not CDs or 8-tracks, or an iPod), and it’s “Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie or the Chieftains” playing. And we know their father is cooking, which gives us a view into the family dynamics.
As the idiom goes, “The devil is in the details.” Details, when done right, can create the mood of a scene, a chapter, an entire novel. They help establish, with maximum accuracy, the settings in which your characters live and fight and argue and fall in love so that the reader is right there beside your characters. Details shouldn’t be intrusive; they should create, or assist in creating, a genuine sense of place, of time, of feeling, of smell, of whatever the author is trying to get across to the reader. Details allow readers to walk right into the world in which the author’s characters exist, without calling attention to themselves.
“When describing nature, a writer should seize upon small details, arranging them so that the reader will see an image in his mind after he closes his eyes. For instance: you will capture the truth of a moonlit night if you'll write that a gleam like starlight shone from the pieces of a broken bottle, and then the dark, plump shadow of a dog or wolf appeared. You will bring life to nature only if you don't shrink from similes that liken its activities to those of humankind."
I’ve always found the line “a gleam like starlight shone from the pieces of a broken bottle” to be so clever, so telling and insightful, that I’ve tried to replicate the sentiment, the idea that that simile provides, in my own writing. Who wouldn’t be intrigued about light shining from pieces of a broken bottle? What a great detail!
But not everything has to be so clever when it comes to details. Creating lists, like Hawley’s list of the things Eleanor and Maggie share, are great (and relatively easy) ways for authors to provide specific (and meaningful) details to readers. Lists can tell you a great deal about a character, e.g., “With his long, thin fingers he opened the leather bag and started pulling out a worn reflex hammer, a white gauze sponge in its crinkly paper wrapping, a small, metal tuning fork, and crocodile forceps, whose small jaws reminded Sully of the day the Warren’s German Shepherd, Caufield, bit him on the lips.”
From those few lines, we have enough to build in our minds a pretty good picture of the setting, obviously the occupation of the person with the thin fingers (which also gives us a hint about the doctor’s physique), the doctor’s tools, which he keeps in a “leather bag,” and the trauma Sully suffered at the jaws of his neighbor’s dog.
As you write, try focusing on the details you’ll do when it comes to writing the different parts of your fiction. Focus on the details you use for your characters. For your settings. For your backstory. Your scenes. A helpful practice I’ve found is creating a spreadsheet or document that captures all of the words, adjectives, etc. that you might use when writing the details for each element of your fiction. For example, what words would you use to describe a novel or short story that takes place in the south? In the northeast? The 19th century west? What details would be appropriate for each of those?
For the story that takes place in the south, you may want to incorporate religious details in your writing, as much of Southern literature is intrinsically connected to the religion and its practices. Racism and history are important in Southern literature, so details around its impact on place and setting will be (or could be) important. And what about the details of the west in the 1800s? What did it smell like in Las Vegas, New Mexico when your narrator rode his horse down Sixth Street? What did people wear in 1848 when the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War? What were women’s bonnets made of? What color were they? Did bonnet styles/brands dictate economic differences? These details are things you can use to enhance how real your readers get pulled into the worlds you’ve created.
The last thing I’ll say on details in fiction is this: focus primarily (if not only) on the details of the important things in your work. There’s no need to go down a rabbit hole of details for things that don’t matter. If the details add value to a scene, to who a character is and why they act the way they act, if a town is thriving in your novel or if it’s dying—then they’re important to the story. They provide context. They provide depth. They provide clarity. Remember, the devil is in the details. And in fiction, you need to not only welcome that devil, you need to treat him as best you can, because he’s your ally when it comes to writing good, compelling fiction.
“There were far worse strategies in life than to try to make each aspect of one's existence a minor work of art.”
—Pat Conroy, The Lords of Discipline
Cully Perlman is an author and Substantive Editor. Contact him at Cully@novelmasterclass.com to discuss editing your novel.