Significant Details are a Writer's Best Friends
Successful writers “show and don’t tell” by adding physical details and concrete images to heighten readers’ senses as they read. These details and images become significant when they suggest something greater about a character, setting, or conversation.
It is not significant, for example, to say that a character is “well-read.” It is significant to list specific titles the character has read. It is also not significant to say “she felt discouraged.” It is significant if we add details that suggest the degree, depth, and expression of her discouragement.
If a writer uses few or no significant details, readers often find themselves in literary limbo—a foggy sea of unclear generalizations and missing specifics. Readers feel lost and adrift with nothing concrete to hold onto. Significant details give readers something for their senses to latch onto and spice up otherwise dull characters, settings, and dialogue.
Significant details for characters
Observe this vague, telling description of a character: “She was a small woman.” This sentence begs the obvious question, “How small was she?” We could improve this sentence somewhat and write, “She was petite.” This equally telling sentence, however, requires us to define “petite.” We therefore need to show the reader how petite she is without using the word “petite.” By inserting significant details, we can help the reader see her: “She often had to shop for her shoes and socks in the children’s section at Macy’s, and she rarely found a size 0 dress that didn’t hang off her shoulders.”
Examine this telling description: “He was skinny.” Perhaps he is, but it’s the writer’s job to show the reader how skinny he is. We could list his height and weight, of course, and vital statistics are indeed significant details, but it would be much more interesting to read: “If his shoulder blades were transplanted to his chest, he would have a chest, and whenever he turned sideways, only his skeletal nose cast a lean shadow onto the ground.”
Telling statements are often far too vague for their own literary good. “She was angry when she arrived home from work” gives us little significant information. We know that she’s angry, and we assume her anger stems from something that happened at work. While we can empathize with this situation, we can’t see or feel the degree of her anger. We need to show how she expresses her anger without having her “stamp her foot,” an unfortunate staple of many romance novels. In real life, most people express their anger by throwing and kicking things, slamming doors, cursing, crying out, or moaning. They often take their anger out on inanimate objects, other people, and even pets.
Let’s make our character extremely angry by supplying a few significant details: “She gouged the Pamele Bubinga dining room table with her Audi A8’s car keys, dented the Picasso with her Pineider Milano briefcase, kicked her Dolce & Gabbana pumps up into the ceiling fan, and launched herself onto her Marshall & Steward Cullinan bed, pounding an innocent McRoskey down pillow into submission.” While this description is exceptionally over-the-top, it does give readers a vivid visual of her anger. It also shows readers her degree of wealth without telling readers, “She was rich.”
Look at this vague sentence from a romance novel: “He was sad because the love of his life had left him.” While this sounds fine as written, it still sends readers to literary limbo. How sad was he? How can we show readers his sadness and the love he had or still might have for his former lover? Do we want him to weep and kiss his lover’s picture? Do we want him to walk the rainy midnight streets in a drunken rage shouting, “Stella!”? Do we want him to listen for hours to his lover’s voice on a voice mail? We could have him do all of these things, but then we’d risk turning him into a whiny, sniveling collection of evaporated testosterone. If that is what you want your readers to feel about him, go for it.
If, on the other hand, you wish for him to maintain some semblance of virility and manliness, you could try something like this: “He stared at her now vacant side of the closet and listened to the tinkling of her colliding, empty hangers, wondering why he didn’t see this coming …” You could, of course, continue his last thought ad infinitum as he recounts memories of his long gone lover, or you could have him sit in his favorite chair toasting her picture as he drank away his angst. At any rate, adding significant details has transformed this vaguely drawn sad character into a concretely written sad man without telling the reader “he was sad.”
Significant details for setting
Use significant details when initially describing your main setting and each of your scenes to help you move on efficiently and effectively with your story. Without significant details, settings and scenes become vague and leave your readers wondering where they are.
Even simple descriptions of the weather can fog up the works. Instead of “It was a very cold fall day,” write: “Frost crackled under squirrels’ feet, normally shrill blue jays kept their silence, and the house groaned from every joint and joist.” Turn “It was a dark and stormy night” (thank you, Snoopy) into “Thunderbolts ripped through the swirling darkness as weeping willows writhed in horror.”
In other words, transform vague descriptions like “It was a nice day” into anything but “it was a nice day.” What was nice about it? Were birds chirping “Ode to Joy”? Were squirrels frolicking with hairy smiles on their rodent faces? Was the sun laughing off sunbeams as breezes sang show tunes? Establish the weather with a few significant details and get on with your story: “While Tropical Storm Rafael wept two inches of rain a minute on Butler County Road 7 somewhere between Mount Olive and Bethel in southern Alabama, lightning blitzed the sky, thunder grumbled, and rain drummed like chubby fists on the hood of a rusty blue Ford F-150, its driver, Andrew Hunt, realizing he was hopelessly lost. Again.” This long sentence (and a fragment) establishes the weather, the general setting, a semblance of danger, and the somewhat poor and hopelessly lost main character. From this point, we can immerse the reader in the drama of the story.
It is vitally important to describe scenes with enough significant details to make it easy for your readers to see them, but it’s equally important not to give them too many. Instead of writing “The church was decorated strangely for a wedding” in a recent novel of mine, I described only what I wanted readers to see: “Lilies fought each other for space on the floor of the vestibule and nearly covered two tables guarding double doors that led into the sanctuary. The aisle split twenty dark oak pews, each festooned with wispy crème ribbons and bows …” I wanted readers to wonder about the lilies, which are usually flowers reserved for funerals, because this will be no ordinary wedding. Eventually—but not immediately—I have a character give an explanation for the flowers.
Pick and choose your significant details carefully, and place them exactly they belong, always keeping the action moving. You may think that describing a kitchen as “messy” and “the heart of her home” is enough to satisfy readers. What specifically makes it messy? What specifically makes it the heart of the home? Add enough significant details to these vague descriptions and the kitchen will become much more than a kitchen:
“Originally antique white, the kitchen walls were the color of cooking oil. The blue flowers on the wall border had wilted somewhat—as had the wall border itself. She sat at the table her daddy had refinished several times over the years, but she could still see the impressions from years of homework completed on that somewhat level table. Her mama used to have a ‘home and hearth’ theme in her kitchen, but it an ‘unknown-goo-ancient-drip-cracked-counter-child-art-still-on-the-fridge-and-random-wall-hanging’ theme now.”
Once you have used significant details to welcome the reader into a scene, stop describing the scene and move on to significant action and drama. If, for example, your main setting is “the moors,” describe them once in detail and don’t describe them in detail again. It isn’t necessary to relentlessly describe every nuance of “the moors” (or the palace, the bedroom, the apartment, the house, the backyard, the office, the alley) in every chapter unless a particular setting meaningfully changes in some way. If the house burns down, for example, you can describe what’s left.
The same is true for objects in a scene. Once you describe a man’s favorite “thinking chair”—“easily the oldest living easy chair in Brooklyn, its lumpy cushion comforting, its springs moaning, each coffee, pizza, and food stain marking his progress from NYU undergrad to successful litigator to occasionally paid Internet lawyer”—you don’t have to describe it in detail again. It simply becomes “the easy chair” or “his chair.”
If you use significant details to launch and inhabit your scenes, you will have more “writing space” to develop the drama your readers crave.
Significant details for dialogue
Dialogue doesn’t have to be boring, but if often becomes tedious when it’s missing significant details. Look at the following ordinary telephone conversation:
“Sonya, how are you?” Michelle asked.
“Fine, Michelle,” Sonya said. “How have you been?”
“Okay,” Michelle said.
“Where have you been?” Sonya asked.
“I only wanted to leave you a message,” Michelle said, ignoring Sonya’s question. “But it’s ten o’clock on a Friday night. Why aren’t you out somewhere?”
“I lead a quiet life now,” Sonya said.
This conversation is dully depressing and as dry as week-old toast. By establishing a reason for the call, tinkering with what each woman says and how she says it, and including a few significant details and thoughts, this conversation begins to build drama and a little suspense:
It started with a phone call from Sonya Richardson’s publicist.
“Sonya, how’s it going?”
I haven’t heard from Michelle Hamm in five years, Sonya thought. “Fine, Michelle. How have you been? A better question is where have you been?”
“I only expected to leave you a message.”
Sonya sighed. Michelle was infamous for not answering her questions.
“I am so surprised that you answered, Sonya,” Michelle said. “It’s ten o’clock on a Friday night. Why aren’t you out somewhere with your bad self?”
Because I don’t have a “bad self” anymore, Sonya thought, not that I ever had a bad self. “I lead a quiet life now. You know that.” Just me in my suburban Charlotte, North Carolina, home on my suburban couch in my suburban great room, watching my new flat- screen TV bought at a suburban electronics store …
The added significant details liven up the scene and give readers a much better picture of Sonya, who we now realize leads a somewhat contented though solitary life. Where the original scene left us in the dark, the revised scene leaves us much more enlightened—and hopefully more interested in continuing with the story.
First dates often lend themselves to interesting dialogue because they are usually fraught with confusion and hesitation, yet in many novels these conversations sound perfectly ideal and ultimately ring false. Look at the conversation from this literary first date:
“So, how’s Brooklyn Legal?” Matthew asked.
“The same, you know,” Monique said.
“Are you still busy?” Matthew asked.
“Yeah,” Monique said.
“Is the office still crowded?” Matthew asked.
“Yeah,” Monique said.
“You obviously like working there if you’re still there,” Matthew said.
“Yeah,” Monique said.
“How long have you been there now?” Matthew asked.
“Five years,” Monique groaned.
“Is Mitch still there?” Matthew asked.
“Yeah,” Monique said.
“I remember when I started,” Matthew said. “Mitch and I did so many cases together.”
“But that’s past history,” Matthew said.
Monique smiled …
This conversation is as boring as watching obese snails race, as dull as an antique butter knife recently used by a child to whittle an oak stump, as mind-numbing as listening to the Teletubbies theme song. If readers are still awake, they might be wondering why Monique says “yeah” so often and why Matthew asks her so many questions. By adding significant details and a few choice thoughts to this scene, both characters begin to develop personalities:
As Monique inhaled her second Parlourita and Matthew sipped his original Sam Adams, Matthew tried desperately to get a conversation going. “So, how’s Brooklyn Legal?”
“The same,” Monique said. “You know.”
I don’t know, Matthew thought. That’s why I asked. “Still busy?”
“You obviously like working there if you’re still there.”
“How long have you been there now?”
Monique groaned. “Five years.”
That was a sexy groan, Matthew thought. I hope she groaned because of my question and not from the effects of that Parlourita. What’s she weigh, one-twenty? She has an unusual tolerance for alcohol.
“Is Mitch still there?” Matthew asked.
“I remember when I started and Mitch was doing some Greenpoint rezoning case and fighting developers,” Matthew said. “That was a mess, wasn’t it?”
Monique blinked at him, frowning.
Did her eyes just roll? They did. “But that’s past history.”
Monique’s smile returned.
I talk, and she rolls her eyes, Matthew thought. I stop talking, and she smiles. I will stop talking …
In this scene the writer has shown that Matthew is sober and eager to get to know Monique, Monique is getting drunk and doesn’t want to talk, and that most likely these two are incompatible. Without significant details, however, the reader wouldn’t sense any of these things.
Overusing significant details
Occasionally writers provide too many significant details, and these details bog down and interrupt the narrative because modern readers crave action, not endless description.
In chapter three of The Grapes of Wrath, for example, Steinbeck halted the flow of his classic novel with a 700-word description of a turtle crossing the road. While this description holds great meaning and foreshadows the Joad family’s tribulations to come, it stops the action cold. Could the novel still be a classic without chapter three? Certainly. It would give English teachers less to discuss about symbolism and foreshadowing, but the novel would have been just as successful.
Even in action adventures, some writers like Tom Clancy overdo the technical specifications of weaponry for pages at a time. Do most readers really care what the size, color, speed, shape, manufacturer, history, trajectory, and payload of a missile is when it is shot from an altitude of 4,800 feet with 10 mile-per-hour crosswinds coming from the northeast? No! They want to see the damage such a weapon incurs. If you find that your writing has too many significant details, delete what isn’t absolutely necessary to keep the action going.
If you are persistent and precise in the use of significant details when you write, you will save your readers a trip through the fog of literary limbo and you will make friends with many readers.