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The Devil Is In the Details

By on October 23, 2014 . Category Column

When people think of writing, they tend to think of the big picture. Character arcs and rising/falling action, book plots and major scenes. Even experienced writers have a habit of focusing on the big things, the things that ensure the story makes sense, flows logically, and doesn’t have any glaring plot-holes or crazy mistakes.

And that’s good! We need to devote a lot of time and attention to these things, because they are absolutely important. A great story has to have a great plot, great characters, and great writing. That’s your basis, that’s your foundation.

The problem comes when, in an effort to give these elements of the story their due attention, we ignore other elements that, while not as blatantly, in-your-face important, are still crucial to a great story.

There is something incredible about a story with excellent attention to details that captivates audiences. Much like a synopsis can sound cool, but reading the book is far more enjoyable, reading a book that includes the right details is ten times more fun.

Now, a word of caution—don’t over-write. Detail can become boring and even painful if it’s utilized too often, or in too great of detail. I know, I know—I’m saying “be detailed!” and then I’m saying “don’t be too detailed!” and now you hate me. I get that. Just try to work on striking that balance, because it’s so worth it.

Details are most appreciated when they’re woven seamlessly into the prose, rather than breaking off from the narrative. Consider the difference here:


Anna pulled at the hem of her sweater as she surveyed the dark room they’d stepped into, studying the shifting shadows in the corner. She didn’t like the musty smell of the place, but worse was the cold. Anna rubbed her arms and let out a shuddering breath, which rose in a little cloud before her.


Now compare that to:


Anna was nervous. She didn’t like the room they’d stepped into this time. It was too dim, with many shadows and dark corners. The room also smelled bad—musty and dank. To top it off, it was so cold that Anna could see her breath.


(Or even just: “Anna was nervous. She didn’t like the room they’d stepped into this time—it was creepy.”)

The second paragraph is much more “tell-y” with its details, making it less personal. It removes the reader from the character’s perspective, which can be jarring if done wrong. I’m not saying there’s never a place for this, but it’s more fun (and more natural) to experience it from the character, and in that perspective, the details are enjoyed, rather than glossed over by a bored reader. The third example in parenthesis isn’t necessarily wrong, either, but it leaves a lot to be desired. Why was it creepy? How was it creepy?

It isn’t just narrative details, either. I’ve said multiple times before that you need to know your characters inside and out, and this is another example of why. When you know your characters the way you know yourself, dropping little details about them into the prose will be natural and automatic. It won’t even be something you think about. (This is yet another benefit to having people, rather than characters, star in your novel.)

You know you’re doing your job with the fine details right when someone can read your book over and over and find new things each time—it means your story is packed with hidden details (the best kinds!) that give it the richness that inspires people to read it over and over again in the first place.

These details will often reveal themselves to you in edits and revisions, so don’t stress too much over getting it all in on the first or even second draft.  Much like humour, these details almost always come later on, and are just a bonus if they pop up in your early writings!


What are some of the hidden little details in your story that you absolutely love?


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