Article of The Week

Details, Details

c. 1997 by Alicia Rasley

"Our life is frittered away by detail.... Simplify, simplify." Henry David Thoreau

"Our life is frittered away by detail." I'll bet that echoes for most of you. Even more than in Thoreau's day, too much of our time is consumed with details. Call it "life clutter"-- all those nagging worries about inessential matters: what brand of soap Tommy said he wanted, which Star Trek episode is a re-run, whether I sent my mother a birthday card or just imagined it. My attention is scattered in so many pieces I can't pull together enough to create dinner, much less the Great American Novel.

Fritter, fritter, fritter, there goes my life.

But we can't rid life entirely of detail. Too often what seems just to be a trivial nuisance turns out to have some significant consequence. For example, consumed with anxiety that I got the wrong brand of soap for Tommy, I forget to send my mother that birthday card. She takes offense and decides not to lend me the money she'd promised that would rescue my new business. The business fails, the bank forecloses, and Tommy and I end up on the street, without any soap at all.


I think that's what Thoreau meant when he recommended "simplify": "Discriminate"-- distinguish between the essential and the trivial.

Maintaining Mom's approval, especially when she signs the checks, is essential. Soap isn't.

The same is true in fiction. Plot, character, and setting can all benefit from the judicious addition of detail. Telling detail can help define character, create suspense, establish setting, amplify theme, and further plot.

But you can do this well only if you distinguish between essential detail and trivial detail. Your reader has been trained to retain information for later use, even if it's just a detail mentioned in passing-- in other words, she has the right to expect that most everything you've put in your story is there for some good reason. The more trivia you insert, the more her mind is going to be cluttered, and the less she'll be able to focus on the real story. You'll be frittering away your reader's attention, instead of focusing it, and frittering away her patience, instead of rewarding it.

As an example, pick up nearly any book by those young writers known collectively as "the literary brat pack"-- Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Amy Hempel, and a host of other former sophomore creative writing students. Their books embellish minimum plot with maximum detail-- brand names, verbatim headlines, precise directions to actual places. The effect is rather like draping a skeleton in costume jewelry. No one in these stories ever just buys a newspaper-- it's always the National Enquirer, and the cover story is always described ("Elvis's Space Alien Baby!"). No one ever wears just a white T-shirt-- it's always from the Gap, or festooned with some graphic: an anatomical drawing of a heart, the Coke slogan, the NYC subway map.

Remember, most readers these days are trained. They expect these details to have some significance. And so there they are, puzzling over what it means for someone to wear the NYC subway map on his chest. And certainly there must be some symbolic significance to that Elvis space alien? Or maybe Elvis is there in grocery store, and the heroine is going to identify him?

Imagine how disappointed such diligent readers are going to be when they get to the end of the book and find that the hero must have worn that T-shirt because it was the only clean one he had, and that the heroine never gives Elvis or his poor alien baby another thought.

Now, to do justice to the writers I'm maligning, I must confess that there is some supposed method in their madness. They're trying to show the fragmentation of modern life, the inability of humans to communicate, the meaninglessness of existence; as one of their number puts it, to reflect "shortened attention spans, fractured marriages, and splintering families." In other words, they want to fritter away their stories on detail. Just like in real life.

Fine. Let them fritter. But those of us writing in the popular fiction genres would do better to follow Mark Twain's dictum: "Of course truth is stranger than fiction. FICTION HAS TO MAKE SENSE." Our readers, those heartless creatures, won't settle for non-sense, even the brand-name variety.


We need to aim for coherence, not fragmentation. For coherence, details should matter in some way. Moreover, you as the writer should know how they matter, that is, the effect they have on the story and ultimately on the reader.

What's at stake here is reader involvement. Consciously or subconsciously fitting the details into the larger jigsaw puzzle, the reader becomes part of the process of making meaning of the story. Keep in mind that the best detail is integrated with the greater narrative; that is, it should be significant without being obtrusive. It should whisper, not shout.

In fact, the perfect detail might be one whose significance is only later revealed, causing the reader to slap his forehead and say, "I shoulda known!"

Dorothy Dunnett is a master of using detail to increase reader involvement in her historical series. Indeed, I'm in an Internet discussion group dedicated to determining the significance of some of her tossaway lines. The rule we abide by is: If it's mentioned twice, it's significant. So if everytime Pope Pius II is mentioned, someone gossips about his long blonde curls and the lovechild he sired 25 years earlier... well, we trot off obediently to find which main character is 25 years old and blonde.

The slight incongruity especially piques our interest. When the supposedly Scottish maid Ada curses in French, we speculate that she is actually the mysterious missing Cousin Adeline from Dijon.

After all this effort we've put in assembling this jigsaw puzzle, you can be sure we're expecting these nagging details to be revealed as significant in the forthcoming books.

Few of us will be writing 14-book series and inspiring obsessive discussions. But we too can get our readers more involved in our books with intriguing details.


The most common use of detail is in description of character and setting. Beyond the purely physical elements, usually we'll put in something designed to evoke deeper understanding. The hero not only has dark blue eyes, he also has the tattoo of a dragon on his wrist. From this, the reader might suspect that he was, at some point in his life, something of a rebel. The tattoo becomes a harbinger of a character trait.

But you have to be careful here to know what message that detail is sending. Some writing books urge you to describe the hero's car and the heroine's purse. Well, what am I supposed to presume about the hero because he drives a BMW? That he's rich? That he's status-conscious? That he's got good or bad taste? And what, for pity's sake, am I to make of the heroine's Gucci purse? Maybe I think that Gucci=superficial nouveau riche. Is that what you want me to think about the heroine?


Instead of relying on dropping brand names to define your characters, consider using a more individualized detail, maybe one that is revealed in the action of the book. Say the heroine calls the hero at 7:30 one morning, and the line is busy. She mentions it later, and in some embarrassment (I love a hero who blushes) he confesses that he calls his frail elderly mother every morning just before the long-distance rates change. Now you can be pretty sure that what I learn from this is what you want me to learn-- that the hero is a loving son, and thrifty besides.

This is detail as true character development, not just window display. It's also more dynamic, because it happens within the story, rather than being inserted in some descriptive list.


Effective setting details work the same way. Laura Kinsale contrasts a typical room description ("There were two doors on the back wall, and between them a low table....") with John Fowles's evocation of the home of the French lieutenant's woman, a meager room with cracks in the plaster and a black stain on the ceiling, from the smoke of the oil lamp. Instead of serving as an architect's blueprint, Fowles's details reveal the decrepit loneliness of the woman's life, inspiring pity and dismay.

In other words, think about what you want to reveal about the character and/or place, and then choose details that will evoke that. Consider how you can later show the descriptive detail to be even more significant than is initially apparent. That dragon tattoo, for example, might be later revealed as evidence that the hero was once a sailor in the Far East. Or maybe the heroine recognizes the dragon as the emblem of a street gang, and her admiration turns to suspicion.

The danger with detail-as-description is that it tends to be static, to tell and not show. In small doses, that won't bother the reader. But don't fall into the trap of proving the villain's evilness primarily by his waxed mustache and his habit of jingling coins in his pocket. Villains should be proved villainous by their actions, not by their appearance. Don't rely on description to do what your plot ought to be doing.

This is ESPECIALLY important with heroes! Too many heroes are deemed heroic because they have broad shoulders and an arrogant bearing. But heroism is entirely in the action, not the appearance. If he doesn't ACT heroic, he's not a hero, no matter how he swaggers.


Think of your own protagonist. If you were allowed only one telling detail to describe this character, what would it be? Don't confine yourself just to physical attributes. Habits, routines, a past event, a goal-- any of these are details that can help to define a character. But remember, one strong detail, truly illustrative, is worth more than a dozen bits of trivia.

Also remember, when defining character, always avoid the generic. Get as specific as you can. Make the detail fit this character, not this character fit the detail. That means you have to get to know your character, and THEN figure out what kind of car he drives. Don't start with the car and try to build a character from it.

A strong descriptive detail, one that is essential to the character, could very well turn out to have plot consequences too. Remember Scarlett O'Hara's 17-inch waist? Remember how proud she was after baby #1 when her maid was able to corset her down to 17 inches again? Remember after baby #3, she could only get down to 21 inches? (Didn't you just ache for her?)

Margaret Mitchell meant for us to interpret this as a sign of Scarlett's vanity. But she didn't stop there. The morning she gets the dread 21-inch news, Scarlett decides she's not going to have any more babies. And that means, she tells Rhett, no more sex. (This we interpret as a sign of her lunacy-- I mean, wouldn't you settle for a 21-inch waist, if you could have Rhett too?) Her vanity, evident in her obsession with her waist, causes an estrangement from her husband that leads to her ultimate tragedy. This is a truly significant detail.


Beware of the purely symbolic details. We all hated symbols in 11th-grade English class, and we haven't much changed. But if you can make the "symbol" do double duty, say as a plot element, you might be able to finesse it past even the most virulent symbol-phobe.

Think of Othello's handkerchief, the one he got from his mother. Yeah, it symbolizes the purity of a woman's love, and that's why he gives it to Desdemona. But it turns out to be much more than a symbol. With the purest of motives, Desdemona passes it on to another man, and Othello later takes this as a sign of her infidelity and murders her. So the handkerchief becomes a perverse symbol (its purity stained by suspicion), and, of course, a prop that directly affects the plot.


Props, those objects that take up space in your setting, or get handed around by your characters, can indeed be details that make a difference. At least, that's what your reader expects-- that any prop you make a fuss over is going to later affect the story. Chekhov said it best: If you have a gun lying around in Act One, it better go off by Act Three.

It only makes sense-- props are tools to be used, after all. In the film THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, the prison inmate played by Tim Robbins trades money for a little rockhammer-- a literal tool. We learn from this prop that he's a rockhound, that he carves chess pieces to keep from going stir-crazy. It's a symbol of his need to carve some order, some meaning, out of this terrible place. It's only much later that we realize the other use he makes of this prop-- for twenty years, he chisels away at his wall with that tiny hammer, covering the hole with a poster of Rita Hayworth. And finally the little hammer gives him real as well as symbolic freedom.

Now that's a great detail.


One particularly clever use of detail is in self-indictment. This is where a character reveals something through a detail that later proves him to be a liar or a thief or murderer. The suspense is created because the significance isn't revealed right away. And reader involvement is necessary to later fit that piece into the puzzle.

An example, from that first detective story OEDIPUS THE KING, is Jocasta's explanation of what happened to her baby. (The baby, you'll recall, later becomes her husband, Oedipus. And I thought I had in-law problems.) The child, she tells Oedipus, was torn from her arms and left to die on a mountainside, its heels pierced and thonged so it couldn't get away.

That detail about the heels is important enough-- Oedipus has scars on his heels. But the real significance of her testimony comes out later, when the shepherd who took the baby describes what really happened that day thirty years earlier-- Jocasta readily handed the child over. There was no arm-tearing necessary.

Jocasta has indicted herself as a liar, but more subtly as someone who cannot face the truth and thus distorts history. This weakness results in her committing suicide when the truth finally comes out. (Oedipus, in contrast, confronts the truth directly and takes the consequences.)

In this way, the detail of how she handed over her baby echoes the play's theme of the danger of truth-seeking. Intriguingly, her exposure also reveals something about Oedipus. He can accept that she is a liar, even that she is his mother as well as his wife. What drives him to attempt to murder her is the revelation that she was an unloving mother to him. -That- he cannot bear, that she was willing to give a tiny baby over for execution. His "inner-child" is the motivator for his action.

Details like this make backstory matter not just as formative experience, but as plot elements in the here and now. They make the past affect the present, and thus cause the future.

God is in the details, as the architects say. And so when you're building your story, take some time to consider what details will most effectively support that structure. Look for opportunities-- in description, in action, in backstory, in props-- to integrate significant details, ones unique to these characters and this plot. Then, when you're revising, follow to Thoreau's advice. Simplify. Take out the details that merely distract; replace them with details that define and motivate and reveal.

Then you won't worry about frittering away your details.

For information about my online workshops, click here for The Painted Rock Writers Colony.

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Alicia Rasley

Copyright © 1997 Alicia Rasley
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