Details offer readers a chance to live vicariously in a world far different from their own. How much detail do you, the writer, need to provide? A lot. And you must keep on feeding the reader’s “minds eye” as the scene progresses. Why? Because without meaningful details, readers experience a visual “white-out,” like the white-out in a snowstorm. The snow swirls all around, but a traveler cannot see the road ahead. Readers cannot locate themselves in your landscape.
In a recent blog post, I mentioned Charles Baxter’s book, BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE. In that book Baxter has an essay about using “telling details.” What are telling details, exactly? Well, they’re details that plant an image in the reader’s minds-eye. They provide a key piece of information that fires up the reader’s imagination. But don’t overdo it. If you provide too many details, your reader won’t be able to sort out which details s/he should notice. Readers will feel overloaded, buried under the big load of laundry you’ve shaken over their heads.
Probably all of you know the famous Chekhov quote: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” That’s one of my favorite quotes because, right away, you understand what he’s getting at.
Details In The “Establishing Shot”
Here’s another example of telling details from a novel with an omniscient viewpoint–a wise consciousness that hovers over the narrative and delivers the story. This omniscient voice is not that of any particular character. It’s more “feelingful.” The excerpt below comes from Olive Shreiner’s THE STORY OF AN AFRICAN FARM.
I’m including this picture of the author because it will signal to you that she was writing during her own lifetime, not looking back. She was intimately familiar with the scene in South Africa–the veldt, the quality of light, the emptiness and silence. If you are writing historical fiction, you might imagine that you are a person actually living in that time–a wise woman, or a Merlin able to conjure up the future. You are not looking back and not inclined to “info dump” because this is your world, and you want to present it plainly, without frills.
Details Take Us to Exotic Places
How many of us have ever been on an African farm? Few, I should imagine. But, from Olive Shreiner’s description, we can imagine ourselves standing in that landscape, standing in it by day and standing in it by night. In film a summary passage like this would be called the “establishing shot.”
The farm by daylight was not as the farm by moonlight. The plain was a weary flat of loose red sand, sparsely covered by dry karroo bushes, that cracked beneath the tread like tinder, and showed the red earth everywhere. Here and there a milk-bush lifted its pale-colored rods, and in every direction the ants and beetles ran about in the blazing sand. The red walls of the farmhouse, the zinc roofs of the outbuildings, the stone walls of the “kraals,” all reflected the fierce sunlight, till the eye ached and blenched. No tree or shrub was to be seen far or near. The two sunflowers that stood before the door, outstared the sun, drooped their brazen faces to the sand; and the little cicada-like insects cried aloud among the stones of the “kopje.”
What feeling is evoked by this passage? I feel forlorn when I read it. I feel myself to be in a desolate, isolated place, where, despite the sound of the insects, there is almost total silence. No surprise that the very next passage, which I’m not going to quote, introduces us to two orphans. However, the author has prepared the ground well, because we are not surprised to encounter these children. The details have given us enough information to know that orphans in such an unforgiving landscape will face an uphill battle.
Details Make Your Reader Feel
All those words we put on the page, all the clothing we describe, all the facial features, and smells and sounds and sighs–all of this accretion–has one goal. That is to make the reader feel. The opening passage of a novel, and often the opening passage of each chapter within the novel, can benefit from an “establishing shot” with carefully selected, “feelingful” detail. You, as a writer, should not attempt to provide a salad bar’s worth of detail, leaving it to the reader to pick and choose. No. You, the writer, must present a tray of canapes, each artistically arranged to whet readers’ appetites and leave them hungry for more.
If you’re intrigued by the ways details can help readers bond with your story, take a look at this short article on Wikihow. If your details make use of all five senses, your readers will feel immersed in your fictional world.
But, you can also go too far. In a blog post about the pitfalls of historical fiction, I share my thoughts about the difference between providing appropriate, evocative details and simply dumping adjectives on the page.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.