Craft Week: How to Wield Significant Detail in Fiction Writing

photo_893_20111224_1Welcome to Craft Week at the Debutante Ball! This week, each Deb will post about a writing craft topic near and dear to her heart.

John Dufresne, the author of The Lie that Tells a Truth, a really great writing book if you’re in the market for one, often uses the word convince as the goal of a fiction writer. Who are we convincing? What are we convincing them of?

Ron Carlson, the author of Ron Carlson Writes a Story, also a great writing book, calls the same process “giving evidence.” John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist, calls it “giving proof.” We’re trying to prove something. We are making a case. Our case is that the world we are creating is real.

As writers, our goal is to convince readers that the reality of our story is real, and liveable—comfortable enough, in fact, that the reader will want to stick around until the end. (Not too comfortable—but that’s the job of conflict.)

I think significant detail plays a big role in “convincing” readers that they are stepping into a real world with real people in it.

Not just “detail.” Significant detail. According to Janet Burroway, author of THE book on writing (you probably own a copy if you ever studied creative writing in college at any point) Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, creating significant detail is a two-fold process. First, the detail is anchored in the senses. And second, the detail adds to the story you’re telling. Burroway say, “A detail is concrete if it appeals to one of the five senses; it is significant if it also conveys an idea or a judgment or both. The window sill was green is concrete, because we can see it. The window sill was shedding flakes of fungus-green paint is concrete, and also conveys the idea that the paint is old and suggests the judgment that the color is ugly. The second version can also be seen more vividly.”

See how the shedding flakes of the paint goes right to every memory or thought you’ve had about old houses? Maybe an abandoned house? Or an apartment you’d rather not be living in? You felt those shedding flakes of paint in your gut, right? You were in that room.

That’s because significant details do more than describe. They add layers to your meaning. They hint at themes. They set tone. And they contribute to how your reader understands the overall work.

John Gardner says, “The novelist gives you such details about the streets, stores, weather, politics, and concerns of Cleveland (or wherever the setting is) and such details about the looks, gestures, and experiences of his characters that we cannot help believing that the story he tells us is true.”

Just like a good liar, a fiction writer is believed when he/she is specific, definite, concrete.

• Specificity, ironically, creates universal connection. Generalities don’t connect.

• A detail is definite and concrete when it appeals to the senses: seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched.

• A detail is significant when it matters to the character and the story, when it does work for your story.

Burroway says: “As a writer of fiction you are at constant pains not simply to say what you mean, but to mean more than you say.”

I would say this is especially true in mysteries. In mysteries you have to tell the story that is true, as well as veil the true story and tell a false one. At least one false one, often more. Mystery writers have to misdirect readers at the same time they are showing them what truly happened. We also have to drop breadcrumbs of information that will not stand out as brightly as neon signs but must also be resonant enough to be remembered when they need to be—clues. And how do you keep all those possible suspects straight? By giving their characters significant detail, differentiating them in the readers’ minds.

The great news is that significant detail is a writing tool that you can work on as you revise, once you’re more aware of where you’re going, what themes your work is discussing, and what the story really is.


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Author: Lori Rader-Day

Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery THE BLACK HOUR (Seventh Street Books, July 2014). She grew up in central Indiana, but now lives in Chicago with her husband and very spoiled dog.

9 Replies to “Craft Week: How to Wield Significant Detail in Fiction Writing”

  1. I have so much admiration for what mystery writers do because that misdirection is something that has to be masterfully crafted in order to make the reader feel like it all came together in a plausible way. And it also has to make them not feel deceived for purposes of the story (like holding back certain details for suspense’s sake alone).

    And this makes me feel a lot better, because I don’t know where my current WIP is going though I know there’s a big secret there I haven’t uncovered: “The great news is that significant detail is a writing tool that you can work on as you revise, once you’re more aware of where you’re going, what themes your work is discussing, and what the story really is.”

    It’s a nice reminder that I don’t have to know it all yet.

  2. Great post, Lori! And I LOVE LOVE LOVE Janet Burroway’s book. Love it. I should go back and browse through it.

    I love how you described the intricacies of mystery writing. Man, it can get complicated! 🙂

  3. I think the key is “Significant” details, as you say in the title. Beginners often describe too much (to take the analogy to liars, bad liars will often tell too much, because they’re trying too hard to convince you).

    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a great (negative) example. It does not help the story for me to know the specs of everybody’s computers. And (a big no-no in mysteries) there’s a lot of backstory given for characters who are obviously never going to be significant.

    I tend to under-describe in my writing. If a person, place, or thing is unusual, I’ll try to give a clear picture. If it’s not unusual, a quick note is often all that’s needed. I agree completely about generalities — even if you describe things that are pedestrian, the reader will forget quickly anyway.

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