3 Things to Consider When Selecting Details for Your Story

Tuesday, May 19, 2020
Last week, I read Dibs! by Laura Gehl. This picture book is about Julian’s attempts to deal with his toddler brother, Clancy. The next three paragraphs contain several plot spoilers so consider this a warning.  If this bother's you, skip down to "Do they help set a mood?"

Julian’s solution to having a little brother is to call dibs on the things he most wants. These include a solar system plate, an astronaut costume and star cookies.

When you are working with a limited word count, you have to carefully choose each detail. Most fiction picture books are 500 words or less so no word can be wasted. Some flash fiction is almost as short so, again, every word has to count. Here are three things to consider about the details in your own writing.

Do they help build a theme? One of several themes in Dibs! is outer space. When Clancy, the little brother, starts calling dibs, he claims the neighborhood bakery, the source of the star cookies, the White House, and NASA. Eventually, Julian dons the astronaut costume and heads into space to rescue his brother. Earlier in the story, he could have called dibs on a cowboy plate, gingerbread cookies, and a toy hard hat, but the details Gehl chose built up the space theme.  Doesn't sound like something that will work in your story?  This isn’t the only reason to choose specific details.

Do they help set a mood? If you read horror or other books with spooky scenes, keep your eyes open for setting details that have been chosen to set that eerie tone or an ominous mood. The approach to a house where someone has disappeared may include skeletal trees, dead flower beds, and outbuildings with dark windows that look like eye sockets. Set a more upbeat story in a similar place, and you would use a different set of details such as lush evergreens, winter gardens that include holly bushes full of cheerful red berries, and windows that sparkle in the winter light.  Don't see this working for your story either?  Not to worry.

Do these details show what is important to your character? Last but not least, you might decide to include a detail because you are describing something that is important to your character. Your protagonist may wear her grandmother’s wedding ring. If she is a photographer, she is going to notice light and contrast where a costume designer would notice the fit and fabric of clothing.

Whether you are writing something that is only 500 words or you have the 85,000 words typical of a cozy, paying attention to the details you include can help you strengthen your theme, reveal something about your character, or set the tone or mood for a scene.

Don’t panic if your details aren’t this carefully chosen. Although you can spot these kinds of details in published work, remember that the pieces you are reading have been rewritten multiple times.  You can always smooth out your details in a rewrite.


Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of over 25 books for young readers.  To find out more about her writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.  

Sue is also the instructor for  Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins  July 6th, 2020) and Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins July 6, 2010). 


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--Your points are making me go back--mentally--into my manuscript. Am I lacking some of those details in places? Probably. Can I improve my story by weaving in those details here and there? Definitely.

Thanks for this post, Sue. (And I tried to resist reading the part that spoiled Dibs! but I couldn't. Now all the anticipation I was holding for that book has been dashed to the ground... ;)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

For me, one of the greatest dangers of reading is spotting things I could do in my own work. But wait . . . I can do that! I can do this!

Renee Roberson said...

Solid advice, Sue. Thank you. My good old background in journalism has given me the ability to record and take note of the details, but I often forget in fiction and creative non-fiction that we can get a little more creative with the details. I'm trying to do this with the podcast episodes--adding in little descriptions and details (or sound effects) that can help set the mood better. We can always do more.

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