Details Can Make or Break Your Writing

Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Great novels are full of details that draw the reader into the story.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the details we use in our writing. Last spring, I attended a retreat and had a manuscript critiqued by an editor who told me that my setting was good but could be better. “You need detail to pull your reader in.”

So as I read, I’ve been paying attention to details, especially as they relate to setting. In The Shattering, Karen Healey propelled me up the New Zealand Coast from beach to deserted town. I found myself sorting through racks of stained glass and watching the progress on a rehabbed Victorian mansion in Lisa Kleypas’ Rainshadow Road. Vanessa Diffenbaugh had me sorting through blooms to put together just the right arrangement and wondering the fragrant stalls of the flower market in The Language of Flowers.

The details in each of these settings made what I was reading tangible and touchable. If I ever found myself in one of these places, I would instantly recognize it.

But beware giving details about a place you’ve never been and something you’ve never experienced. An inaccurate detail will yank your reader out of the story and make them question everything else in the book.

Recently, I read a novel about a character on a lengthy trip. As she travels, she eats things she’s never had before. The author describes the character sitting and sipping her Blizzard.

Wait a minute. I know this takes place in the summer but how long has she been sitting there? Either the author has never had a Blizzard or she meant to indicate that more than a few minutes had gone by. Whichever one it is, this one trivial detail pulled me out of the story.

Be careful writing about a food you’ve never had or a place you’ve never been. Sensory details are tough when you’ve never had that particular experience. Is a lion cub’s fur soft or coarse? What does an orange grove in the warm sunshine smell like?

Before you write something like this down, check it out or talk to someone who has experienced it, because an inaccurate detail will pull a reader out of your story twice as fast as an accurate detail draws them in.


SueBE blogs at One Writer's Journey.


T.K. Marnell said...

You also need to make sure you don't get too heavy-handed with the details until they bog down the story. I remember as a teenager trying to wade through the Clan of the Cavebear books, which my father swore up and down was one of the must-read classics, and I couldn't get beyond the first few pages. It felt like I was reading a paleontology textbook. Details are for spice and setting--you still need to keep the action moving along!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

That is so true. I remember my husband putting a book aside because it took five or six pages for the character to walk to the front door while observing every flower, every stone in the path, etc. You definitely need a balance.

Sarah Butland said...

Thanks for sharing these tips. I never realized how true it was until I read Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code that came under scrutiny.

I thought a fictitious tale didn't need facts but it's true, you certainly connect more with the story and author when the writer has done their research.

Happy writing and thanks for reading!

LuAnn Schindler said...

Great post, Sue. Your example about food caught my attention. I was editing a group of stories and it was painfully obvious the author never had eaten the food he wrote about. At that point, I couldn't connect because the story lost its authenticity.

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