Every now and then I’ll help judge in a writing contest, and one of the things I often see is that details are wrong or missing. I’ll admit I am a little OCD—I like jigsaw puzzles, and I need the right details to even write a scene. Details matter—a lot in fiction. Why are they so important?
A woman who drives a restored 1963 VW bug is different from a woman driving this year’s BMW, and her attitude about each vehicle says something about her. Does she love her car, name it, curse it, treat it like a moving trash can? A man who owns and uses his grandfather’s pocket watch is different from one wearing a ten-dollar Timex. The details reveal the character to the reader, and specific details matter. If you just have a woman who drives a car, that doesn’t say much about her, other than that she lives in an era when most folks drive. Same goes for a man who has a watch—the lack of details means there’s a lack of characterization on the page.
Details need to show the reader how your characters are different from any others. Too often in romance the hero is tall, muscular with startling (or piercing or arresting) blue eyes. The heroine has strawberry-blonde or auburn or reddish hair with emerald green eyes. In other words, we’ve all read these descriptions so often the characters blur together into sameness. What details make your characters different. Details that could fit into a list (height, muscles or curves, hair color and eye color) are what I call a ‘laundry list’ that don’t help a reader to really see your character. Next time you’re watching a TV show or you’re out people watching, start really watching—you’ll find that what you notice first are the details that are different. It’s the limp that old lady has that she’s working hard not to show. It’s the large, dark mole on the woman’s left arm, visible because of her sleeveless dress. It’s the chipped front tooth when the man next to you smiles, and you wonder if he got it from a bar fight or playing some kind of sport because he’s got both the attitude and the tan to go either way. The details give the reader a vivid, specific picture in mind.
The wrong details can also derail a reader. Too often I see things like a tall man who rides an Arabian stallion (why it’s always a stallion, I have no idea). But Arabian horses are typically not all that big—put a large guy on one and you might as well have him riding a pony. It’s a funny image, not at all sexy. Then there’s the use of reigns instead of reins—and spellchecker won’t help you with that one. Or the heroine who does a Cinderella and goes from wearing ugly dresses to beautiful ones, but we’re never really clear if it is a Victorian dress with hoops and bustles or a Regency empire gown.
Historical fiction brings its own issues with a need for research, and a tough time deciding what’s enough and what is too much—you can overwhelm the reader with too many details. But I think it’s easier to pull back on this and much harder to weave in enough. (The same actually holds true for emotion on the page—it’s easier to pull back on this with a little editing.)
The trick in all of this is to find the right detail, and that means you need to know what it is that the reader should understand about this character without explicitly telling the reader. An example of this is if you want the reader to understand that a character is understated on the surface, but a dangerous man underneath. This means you might put your character into a faded Yale sweatshirt and baggy Levi 501s that leave room to hide the .35 and holster on his hip—notice these are specific, too (it’s not just sweats and jeans and a gun). Or maybe you want the character to come across as high class and respectable, meaning instead of telling this to the reader, you show the character tugging on her gloves, tying the ribbon to her bonnet at the precise forty-five degree angle that both remains out of her way and yet is flattering, and she chooses a parasol to match her kid slippers in a fashionable shade of Pomona green, and which compliments the stripped gown delivered yesterday from her dressmaker. The reader has both images in mind and is also picking up the clues you are dropping that this woman has money to spend on fashion and is particular about how she wears things. This is not someone throwing on the nearest shawl to dash outside.
All this means you have to spend time thinking about the right details to use, and also some time researching those details. You can also use details you already know a lot about. I’ve written horses since I was a horse-craze kid, so writing about anyone who rides—or about those lovely animals—is easy for me. The details are familiar to me, but I do have to stop and think about making sure I don’t dip into jargon that will leave a non-horsey person scratching their head. Some terms like ‘a sweet-goer’ are self-explanator, but others such as a ‘bog spavin’ could throw a reader out of a story, so again it’s about thinking of the right details and being careful to choose the right ones.
I often think this is similar to constructing a painting. If you work in oils, you have to think about shapes, colors, and contrasts. You have to look at light and shadow, and what to put on the canvas to convey the images you see either in font of you or in your mind’s eye. You have to choose details to put in or leave out with the brush strokes you put onto the canvas. Too much and the painting can become a muddy mess. Too little and the canvas ends with blank spaces, leaving the image unfinished to anyone who views it.
This is where layering can help. It’s difficult to get all the details you want into one pass, or one revision or edit. You may have to do one that is just about putting in the right touches for the setting, and another that is about putting in the right details for just one main character. And yet another edit to put in the right touches for the mood of the scene with weather, scents, the feel of the air, and other details that make the world vivid to the reader. Sometimes you may need to get out in the world to get that right detail. It’s hard to know that a barn smells of leather, hay and horse—a wonderful musky mix—if you’ve never been inside a barn, with the soft nickers of horses asking for some grain as you pass by, or shifting in their stalls, straw crunching under their hooves. It’s tough to know that if you slam a poker down on a wooden box, the vibration is going to travel up your arm unless you do this (yes, I did this for a scene in A Much Compromised Lady because I needed that ‘right’ detail). You might not think about the vibrancy of wildflowers in a pasture—bright yellow, softer pinks, pale purples—breaking like a wave under a summer breeze unless you’ve seen this. Experience—writing what you know—helps a lot. So does enough immersion in research.
Immersion in your fictional world comes from thinking about it, from delving into books about the subject you need to know (there always seems to be something new for a story that you have to find out about—I needed to know the weather in 1815 Paris, and I was happy enough to have been there to know spring can be miserable and wet, with splashes of sudden sunlight between fast-scudding clouds). The right details can also come from talking to people who know an area or a subject, so you can get those specific details that will realize the world for you and for the reader.
You want to keep looking for those right details—the vivid ones, the perfect touch. It is that one dab of titanium white against aquamarine that makes those colors into a wave. It is the specs of umber against strokes of green that reveal seeds sprouting from grass. It is the right detail that makes your character suddenly different from all other characters, and shows your character to the reader because you got the details onto the page and into your story.