W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Monday, May 09, 2005

No 5. Details, Details, Details


Details give color and music to our prose. Or should I say they make writing red and jazzy.

Name it, name it, name it, name it. It's not a flower - it's a rose, a petunia, a skunk cabbage. It's not a tree, but a pine, palm, or oak. It's not a car but a Ford, Toyota, or Fiat.

Equally important to being specific in details is what you choose as the detail. If a teenager listens to Bach we have a different impression of the kid than if he were listening to U2. Either music tells readers more about the kid than saying the teenager was in his room listening to a CD. A man who buys a new racing bike every year is different from a man who rides a rebuilt Schwinn Bike from the 1950s.

Here's a real life example on how details change the mood. At the end of the Gulf War I was living in a small Swiss village that had 600 people and 6000 cows. I watched the war on CNN, BBC as well as the French and German stations. I thought they were covering different wars. The day it ended, I did my usual station flipping and what I saw brought home to me the importance of a chosen detail.

The Germans, who didn't participate, mentioned the war was over. There was almost no visual coverage, just a still of tank behind the anchorman.

CNN showed American soldiers being cheered, lifting children onto their tanks and hugging babies.

BBC showed the caskets of British soldiers being flown home.

The French stations showed the devastation of war, burned out buildings, a body here or there, the pain in people's faces.

Which details were valid? Probably all of them. They signaled the editorial perspective. But none of them told the full story. Maybe newscasters can do a better job at presenting unbiased news, but as fiction writers bias is good thing. You can help your readers form the pictures you want to place in their minds with the detail you select.

The earlier you give the reader information, the better. There's nothing more frustrating to read a man brought his wife flowers, and imagine roses, only to be told two pages later they were wildflowers picked from a field on his way home.

Details are more than details. They are the colors for your canvas, the scent for your perfume, the counterpoint for your melody.


  1. "He swilled down the cold dregs of his tea, drowned his cigarette end in the mug and ambled back to his office to half-heartedly rake through the pile of paper in his in-tray."
    R.D. Wingfield WINTER FROST

Now imagine that Wingfield had written "He drank his drink, finished his cigarette and went back to his office to work."

The second example isn't as visual. Frankly it's BOORING. We don't see the movements of swilling, drowning, ambling or raking through papers. All three "detail" verbs in Wingfield's sample convey a meaning that's missing in my sample. My favorite verb from the selection is raking, something I'd like to do with the papers I'm ignoring on my desk. It implies a less careful attitude than "studying, dispensing, considering, etc." A pile of paper implies undone work, especially if there is enough to rake through. Also we know he is doing paper work, not making phone calls, typing on his computer or filing.

A mug gives a different feeling than a teacup, especially one with a saucer. I conjure up a different social status when someone puts a cigarette out in a mug. I can hear the quick spit as it hits the cold dregs of tea. I can almost smell that nasty odor of wet cigarette butt. Details trigger your reader's imagination beyond what you tell them.

  1. "They made me go to dancing class. Ballroom dancing. Can you imagine that? They wanted me to be a proper gentleman. My father used to wear a jacket to dinner. He even painted in an old paint-smeared corduroy jacket. We went to the ballgame and I'd wear my baseball cap and he'd sit beside me in his sport coat, with one of those porkpie hats on.

Now imagine that Beattie had written, "I went to dancing class because my father wanted me to be a gentleman. He tried to be a gentleman no matter what he did." I find it hard to imagine Beattie writing anything that flat, because she is excellent at selection of detail.

The emphasis of being a proper gentleman obviously was important to the narrator's father. The author shows that the father exhibits his concept of being a gentleman by always wearing a jacket, even at times other people might not. He even has a paint-smeared jacket for when he paints. However do real gentlemen paint? Don't they hire painters? That's when the rest of the world wears a sweat or T-shirt. Beattie even told us what material it was - corduroy, not seersucker, not tweed, not wool.

The young boy might be allowed to get away with a baseball cap, but the father wasn't going to give in to such informality even at an informal event like a baseball game (reminds me of French President Jacques Chirac in a suit at the World Cup or Presidnet Nixon walking in a suit along the beach).

The father didn't wear a baseball cap like his son but wore a porkpie hat. The different style of hats allows Beattie to draw a large contrast between the informal son and the more formal father. If she hadn't specified a pork pie hat, we might not picture the father as out of place. Because she places the two characters besides each other the contrast is even more striking.


  1. Take the following quote from Amy Tan's THE BONESETTER’S DAUGHTER and change every detail you can to create different mood.

"She stood in the Cubbyhole, a former pantry that served as her home office. She stepped onto a footstool and pushed open a tiny window. There it was, a slice of a million-dollar view: The red towers of the Golden Gate Bridge that bifurcated the waters making bay from ocean. The air was moist and antiseptically cold against her face. She scanned the sky, but it was too light and misty to see any 'ghost bodies' burning up. Foghorns started to blare. And after another minute Ruth saw the billows, like an ethereal down comforter covering the ocean and edging toward the bridge."

  1. Go into your bedroom or anyplace that is very much personally yours. List all the things in it that are representative of you and you alone. Now do a character sketch of yourself using those items to reveal your personality.


Ian Watson, a reader, wrote this response to January's issue about finding time to write.

"As Jeffrey Archer is currently demonstrating, the way to get to write full time is to get sent to jail for four years - for making up rather too many stories."


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