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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Writing With Sensory Details

My new middle grade is about an eleven-year-old girl named Sadie McKay who moves to a small Texas panhandle town full of “boiling hot air and hard blue sky.”  The first night there, Sadie sits outside and watches the sun set, dreaming of the green, sweet-smelling home she left behind.  Here is a picture I took from my back yard that I think shows a little of what she is feeling.  Though it’s beautiful, it’s also bleak and bare.

Which brings me to the word synesthesia.  Although it’s an actual neurological condition (check out the YA A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass), the definition I will use (for us writerly types) is, “The description of one kind of sense impression by using words that normally describe another.”  Simple examples would be “loud shirt” or “prickly laugh”, and one from my own book, “tangy green smell of summer.”

I came across an exercise today to help develop synesthetic writing skills.  It suggested that writers should spend more time with a “palette” of language, just as painters spend a good deal of time working with a palette of colors. 

The exercise begins with auditory stimulation.  Find a piece of music, an environmental sound, or a certain interior/exterior “space” and listen to the sounds around you.  Describe these sounds as accurately as you can without using any auditory or sound-related words.  Think of sound as though it were colors, temperatures, textures, scents, flavors, and even physical movement.  Come up with ten good lines for whatever you are describing.

 Focus on a visual next.  Find a piece of artwork or any available visual phenomenon, and really look at it.  Think about its textures, light-dark values, clarity, etc.  Keep this in front of you and describe the thing as accurately as you can without using any visual words.  Transform your visual ideas into sound, smell, touch, taste, and movement.  Come up with ten good lines for what you are describing.

Look over your synesthesia-inspired lines.  What do they suggest to you?  Choose your best lines from both of the above and combine them into one poem about one thing (or a few related things).  Don’t resist the direction the language takes you.   What was the result?