My first reaction when I ran across a writer lecturing that “You must use telling details” was instant overwhelm.
I’m a visual spatial learner, which makes me a big picture thinker. Details can be very difficult for me to work with. When I was in the Army, I got lectured on “Attention to detail” all the time!
It’s taken me a long time to work my way into how to do them. Thanks to the Great Challenge, where I’m doing a short story a week (on Story #37 this week), I’ve gotten lots of practice at this. Especially since I’m writing science fiction stories, which are details on steroids (and I’m sure I’m still not doing enough).
Key to Telling Details
I’d like to say this is an easy answer. Everything in fiction writing is presented as “If you do X, Y, and Z,” magic will happen. If you are working on your skills, it’ll take more effort than you expect. If you’re like me, a visual spatial learner, it’ll take a lot of work.
But if people are telling you that your stories don’t have enough telling details, it’s time to dig into your characterization skills.
That’s something I wished I done. But I was always good at characterization, so I let that skill go in favor of learning other skills.
A good principle of learning anything in writing: Learn one skill you’re weak in, and learn one skill you’re strong in.
By learning characterization skills, I don’t mean grabbing a character worksheet and identifying your character’s favorite colors. I’m not even sure how you would get characterization from one of those.
In your writing, start with:
Add the five senses every 2 pages. Your character is experiencing the world, so this is a huge part of characterization. Can you believe that a lot of people tell you not to bother with description? Is it any wonder characterization can be difficult to do? It’s like telling someone to tighten a bolt and not giving them a wrench or the bolt.
Your character reacts to this world. They have opinions about it–a great place to get unexpected humor or set a mood. In one of the Harry Bosch books, Harry was on trial and he described the building where the case was being held as a “tombstone.”
This takes a lot of work and practice. You have to do it more than you think you need to.
You’re also likely to find one sense that’s pretty hard to do. Mine is audio, so I’ve been working on adding more sounds. The drone of cicadas this week wound up in a story!
Adding Even More Details
Start looking at objects in your story. I was working on one of my short stories, Lunch With a Superhero (part of the Dice Ford Superhero series I’m working on). Dice and her friend are seated on a patio for a restaurant. Friend reaches across the table…and I’m like “What’s the table made of?”
So now I’m Googling for “What are outdoor restaurant tables made of?” Bamboo! Great. Added that.
It’s a small thing, but it’s easy to leave out. For me, as the big picture girl, I don’t always see those things as important. But they build a picture for the reader of what this place looks like. In real life, when I sit at an outdoor patio table, I do notice what the patio looks like and then am off to something else, so I don’t even think about in. In my fiction, I always have to cycle back through the story and find places where a bird was just a bird and needs to be an orange-breasted wren.
Practicing the Details
This week, go out for a walk (if it isn’t pouring like it is this morning). Pick one sense and focus on experiencing that:
- What sounds do you hear? Birds all singing? Cicadas buzzing? Leaves snapping as a squirrel runs? The roar of a jet overhead.
- What the ground feel like under your feet? Does walking on asphalt feel different than walking on the sidewalk?
- What does the light of the sun feel like? Is the air warm, blazing, humid? What direction is the sun coming from?
- Watch the sun set or rise? Might be easier in winter. I did this in December and January and it was amazing trying to follow the sunrise in the morning. I watched sunset in a rainstorm, how orange burst on the underside of the clouds for a few seconds, and then were gone.
Spring is a fun time to practice this skill. There’s so much to look at rightn ow.
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