Writing Down the Details

I’m a detail person. Definitely. I love keying in on things around me. It makes me happy when I do this, but sometimes I have to remind myself to slow down and do it.

For writers, paying attention to details is crucial. Details bring story to life.

To help me in preparing my grad lecture this past summer at VCFA, I used a wonderful book called Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan. Regarding details, she says, “Sweat the Small Stuff.  Without the small stuff, no large stuff can follow.” She goes on to say when we give careful attention to the things of the story, our reader will be fully engaged. When a reader is fully engaged, he not only takes in the information intellectually, but he responds to it emotionally as well.

So how can we reach the reader like this using details?

First, think in terms of specificity.  Consider all the parts when constructing details about a person, place, or thing – what Checkhov calls the “little particulars.”  McClanahan uses a tangerine as an example:  it consists of rind, juice, seeds, fruit, pulp, grainy membranes, stem, blossoms, and leaves. Any of these things could be a powerful detail given the right placement in the right story. Take care in naming, also. Is the name you give your detail correct and precise, and does it resonate within your story?

Second, think in terms of relativity. That is, think about those things associated with whatever (or whomever) you’re describing. For instance, if you’re offering details about a tree in your story’s forest, think about not only its parts, but its function.  A tree provides a home for forest creatures, casts shadows of protection, holds together the earth beneath it.

And last, think about what the object is NOT, what McClanahan calls the “backdoor technique.”  About this she says, “Describing details through negation opens up physical spaces otherwise closed to characters, narrators, and readers.”  Description-by-negation.  How interesting to think of constructing details in terms of what you don’t see, hear, or feel.


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