Guest author Sheryl Scarborough talks about how carefully chosen details can make your story come alive including 6 Ways to Amp Up Your Story Using Details and Detail Do’s and Don’ts.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that authors have things. And by things I mean those parts of their story that involve a thread of details that appear and reappear until, well, they become a thing.
In Dumplin’ author Julie Murphy’s character descriptions could more accurately be called character inventories…
“El is everything I’m not. Tall, blond, and with this impossible goofy yet sexy paradox going on that only seems to exist in romantic comedies. She’s always been at home in her own skin.”
“I wait as a creepy-looking man wearing a fishing hat and a dirty undershirt rolls through the drive-thru and recites his painfully specific order down to the exact number of pickles he’d like on his burger. The voice on the speaker gives him his total. The man eyes me, tiling down his orange-tinted sunglasses, and says, “Hey there, sweetcheeks.”
Or… the description of Willowdean, her main character…
“Willowdean,” I said. “Cashier, Dolly Parton enthusiast, and resident fat girl.”
This inventory style of details totally works in Dumplin’ because it’s a story about a girl who becomes painfully aware of her own physical inventory.
In Seriously Wicked, a normal high school girl tries to keep a seriously wicked witch in line. But author Tina Connelly doesn’t open on a scene with Camilla and the witch. She begins her story by showing Camellia tending to Moonfire, a dragon…
“Moonfire looked longingly at the scrub brush as I finished. “Just a few skritches,” I told her. “You know what the witch is like.” I grabbed the old yellow bristle brush and rubbed her scaly blue back.”
The rich details of unusual dragon imagery are a continuing thread throughout the book.
“(Sure, lots of apex predators eat their meat raw. Not dragons.)”
“Like all female dragons, she’s part blue, part translucent, and part invisible.”
“Dragons don’t talk, but they’re not animals. They’re elementals, and all three elementals are smart, even if the dragons don’t communicate in the same way humans do. If you get close to dragons you can pick up their emotional vibrations and sometimes even pictures.”
Connelly uses the dragon-y details to up the magic quotient of her story, which helps to sell the rest of her witchy plot and makes the overall story more believable. The dragon makes it fun, too.
Who knew these seemingly small writing choices (probably made subliminally) could deliver such an impact.
When I made the transition from writing for TV to writing novels, it was those little details that flummoxed me the most. In Hollywood, there are teams of people on the payroll to deal with the details. In a novel, there was just me. How was I supposed to choose between Corinthian leather or a vintage potato sack, between Ryan Gosling or Chris Hemsworth, between the Antarctic or the Sahara Desert? Too many choices sends me looking for chocolate.
From what I can tell, these decisions are mostly the result of individual writerly instinct. And I am a big fan of developing our gut and then following it. But, once we become aware of how something, which on the surface appears invisible, can embellish and elevate our stories, doesn’t it behoove us to attempt to harness that power and learn how to control it?
My details seem to come from my internal writer’s junk drawer. I start out with a character and a plot and rummage around for virtual coat hanger or leftover ball of string that I can work into my story and pin details onto. I’ve spent a bit of time contemplating this and here are some areas and ways to use details to amp up your story.
SIX WAYS TO AMP UP YOUR STORY WITH DETAILS
Mood: If you’re looking to create a certain mood consider using time of day, setting or weather to convey the feeling you’re looking for. Also, don’t neglect the other senses. Smell: a musty basement, new car leather or a lingering hint of perfume can instantly conjure up an image for a reader. Sound is another way. Is there music playing in the background? A sitcom laugh track? Crickets?
Character: Details are a great way shade and enhance your characters but to really take advantage of this power you’ll want to dig deeply into the junk drawer for something really unusual and not just pluck physical descriptions from the top. Think about mannerisms: tics, quirks, clothing, food, hobbies, routines. These are all things that can be woven into a thread and played with and tweaked to reveal your character to the reader in the exact way you see her, without resorting to telling words.
Setting: City, country, traffic, landscape, sights, sounds, smells even a timeline of past, present or future. Where your character lives urban, suburban or in the country, each carefully selected detail will have a distinct impact on everything the reader comes to know and expect about that character and your story.
Time: One of the hardest things to convey creatively in a novel is the passage of time. (Sunrise vs sunset.) One way to do this would be to gear up your details to establish a daily routine for your character and then vary, change and shake up that routine to suit your plot. Once you’ve isolated an area to focus on, like time, allow yourself to be creative by thinking of all the ways it’s possible to reveal the passage of time. Example: a shadow in the morning has a different slant from a shadow in the afternoon.
Tone: Compare the difference in tone between the sharp, sequential detail thread in The Da Vinci Code verses the muddy, convoluted, boozy details from The Girl on the Train. In both novels, the detail threads are hard-wired to the plot. Change them and you’ll wind up with a completely different story. But, if you can make your detail threads absolutely integral to your story, so that they can’t be changed without changing everything, then you will have elevated your writing.
Chronology vs. Suspense: Playing with the chronology of how you reveal your details can be a very effective story technique. Do you start with the ending and then go back through the story to show how you got there? Or, do you skip around, picking and choosing when to reveal the next piece in a chronological puzzle? The choices are up to you. The important thing is knowing you have a choice and how to control it.
Now that you have some ideas for ways to play with the details in your writing, the trick is to perfect the technique until you get it right. You want just enough details to enhance your story…but not more than enough to bog it down. Read on for a few detail dos and don’ts.
DETAIL Dos and Don’ts
(Advice from my writer friends)
1. DO EXTENSIVE RESEARCH. Details and research are important to every book. But the author needs to distinguish between what facts are background and grist for the mill to present an authentic tone verses what is essential to be on the page for the reader.
When I decided to write my first book, The Merchant of Venice Beach, I set my story in a tea shop—and the owner of the shop, the protagonist, decided to take dance lessons. As soon as I started writing, I realized I didn¹t know anything about tea and even less about dance. I spent months learning about both. Knowing about both subjects gave me the confidence to write something I knew was real instead of faking it and hoping for the best.
–Celia Bonaduce, The Merchant of Venice Beach
2. DO INCLUDE SOME SPECIFIC DETAILS. Details included on the page should be unique and interesting and sprinkled in like a rare, expensive spice to add flavor to the story.
“Details become important when shared through the character’s attitude, world view, and/or values. A dress is just a dress. But a dress has meaning if the character has always longed for a beautiful glittery dress that makes her feel like a princess, but she’s poor and she knows she’ll never have it. Or, a dress becomes important if the character is a tomboy and thinks wearing dresses is oppressive. The character is what gives the object/detail meaning.”
Ingrid Sundberg (YA Contemporary), Author of All We Left Behind
3. DO INSURE DETAILS ACCURACY Don’t just lift facts from the top paragraph of a wiki, dig deep and find new and unique details that add to the conversation. A few well-placed and interesting facts will elevate your whole story.
4. DON’T USE DETAILS AS FILLER. Details without a purpose will come across as filler which will slow the pace of your story and probably tick off your reader. Details must be essential to your story. If the story, passage, paragraph, scene makes sense and holds together without your details—get rid of them or find another spot for them.
5. DON’T BE TOO EXPLICIT. Details that are too tied to a year – like music, slang, lyrics, pop or topical references can quickly date your novel so you might want to get creative and find something else that makes the same kind of statement but isn’t so tied to a date. Unless you’re writing a period piece, like a Regency or historical then you will want a rich variety of details to flesh out your story and give it that authentic sound. But again, reach for something new and interesting and try to avoid the same old saws.
“I prefer a seamless inclusion of historical facts. I don’t want the writing to feel like I’m trying to educate the reader, so I try very hard to weave in my facts as part of the story. However, my editor has commanded me to include more historical details. It does slow down the pacing so one must be careful. But I did go back and add in more historical details in all of the books that I’ve written for Tor’s Stranje house series. And the librarians and teachers seem to like that.”
— Kathleen Baldwin (Regency author), Stranje House series, Tor Teen
6. DO TRUST YOUR READER. Yes, you see every detail in your head. But don’t write all that. Write enough to spark their imagination and then let your reader fill in the crevices of your story with their own details. This way they will become a partner with you in the story.
One thing I’ve noticed in reading the work of new writers, published and unpublished, is a tendency to explain too much. It seems to me that this generally stems from one of two things—a desire to control the reader’s interpretation of what one has written or a reluctance to trust the reader’s ability to make sense of what’s going on.
“Don’t talk to me like that,” Margo shouted. She was really angry. “You can’t talk to me like that!”
–Lawrence Block, Telling Lies For Fun & Profit
When plotting a new story, try on a few different detail threads and see what they spark. You might be surprised.
Sheryl Scarborough is the author of the YA forensic mystery To Catch a Killer and its upcoming sequel To Right The Wrongs, from Tor Teen. An award-winning writer for children’s television and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, which means she has a never-ending supply of internal writerly junk drawers. You can find her at http://sherylscarborough.com or @Scarbo_author on both Twitter and Instagram.