Basics of writingStory Details

It’s all in the details


From Kellee:

Sometimes minor details are just that. But sometimes little things have a way of becoming big things. So how do you know what details to include in your story and what to omit? The short and sweet of it is: if it moves the story along, leave it. If it doesn’t, cut it.

You can’t tell a story without details, but you don’t want your story bogged down with too many either. This is particularly important at the beginning of your story.

You want to draw the reader in, give her a taste so she reads on for more. You have to find the balance between boring your reader to death, and leaving him wondering what’s just happened. As “they” say, it’s all in the details.

If an old friend you haven’t seen for a long time called, would you want to hear how she washed the dishes that morning, scrubbed the floor, bathed the dog and had a meeting at her son’s school? No. You’d want to hear about the major events in her life. Which sounds more exciting to you:

1) Hi, I was mopping the floor today—figured I may as well since it was raining outside anyway—when the phone rang. Turns out, it was my son’s principal. The guy has this long white beard, reminds me of Santa Claus. (By now, you’re probably thinking “Just get to the point.” Too many unneeded details.)

2) My son’s principal called with bad/good news today.

(Now this is a hook. You’re already wondering what could be so good/bad that the principal had to call your friend. Not only that, but since she hasn’t spoken to you in a long time, why does she feel the need to share this with you?)

Chances are your friend won’t start off with this, but after a few pleasantries, this is all she needs to say to get your attention. But stories aren’t like phone calls, no pleasantries necessary, just something exciting. For example: Megan had the time of her life yesterday.

Compare that with: Megan woke up on Thursday, yawned and stretched. The rain beat against the dirty glass in her window, but she didn’t care. She’d had the time of her life yesterday.

Your editor will yawn and toss your story faster than you can say “ho-hum.” Waking up, yawning, stretching—these things really don’t matter. They can be worked in, if necessary, along with the rain, a bit later in the story. Give the juicy details first, then the minor ones.

Likewise, you shouldn’t start a story detailing your character’s background. Yes, it’s important, but it’s probably not all that exciting. Sprinkle in the details of his life throughout the story, when they become relevant. Compare the following—

When Sypher was a little boy he lived with his mother. He used to watch the cop cars speed past his house, sirens screaming. As a loner, Sypher wondered what it was like to have so much power. He’d daydream about arresting someone, cuffing them and reading them their rights. His mother said he was too small to be a cop. She told him he should become a used-car salesman instead. Sypher thought that sounded boring.

What’s boring is that paragraph.

Sypher snapped the cuffs on the young man then stuffed him into the backseat of the squad car. It never got old, ridding the streets of drug-dealing scum. He straightened his uniform then got behind the wheel. Glancing at the kid in the back, he was glad he hadn’t listened to his mother and become a used-car salesman. Excitement ruled nearly every day on his beat and once he got this snivelling dealer to the detachment, things were really going to heat up.

Now do you want to keep turning pages? You get the details you need plus excitement. If it’s important, and relevant to the story, that Sypher is of a small stature, that detail can be included elsewhere in the story. But don’t force it. Your readers will know if you do. Make your story smooth and natural.

Smooth and natural means not informing your reader of every single movement your character makes. Some of these movements can be assumed. For instance, if your character has to cross the road, looking both ways first is an assumed action. By the time we’re in elementary school, this action is pretty much instinctive. If the action in your story is across the street, just have your character go there as quickly as possible. The quicker you can get to the exciting part, the better. However, if the action is caused by his looking, or not looking, both ways, then you’d need to include it. Then, it’s not a minor detail, but an important one.

On the same hand, if it’s something obvious, omit it— “Clark watched the fish swimming around in the water in the lake” would be much better if written as “Clark watched the fish swimming in the lake.” Why? Because if it’s a lake, then obviously there’s water. This is a good way to tighten your writing.

Sometimes details can be symbolic, if your reader is observant enough notice.

In the movie I, Robot one of the final scenes has Will Smith’s character, Spooner, shaking hands with a robot. Throughout the whole story, Spooner distrusts the AI and in the end it turns out he had good reason. But one robot is different and Spooner comes to accept him as a friend. This friendship is symbolized by one small detail—the hand with which Spooner shakes the robot’s. Spooner has one robotic arm and hand, but he uses his fully human hand to shake the robot’s hand. This seals the complete change in the main character. A minor detail which, admittedly could have been cut without affecting the movie, but which also spoke volumes.

Other details are symbolic of what comes later, and they may even seem out of place. The main character in the movie Transporter has rules and follows them meticulously. But in the beginning, he cuts off a driver and crosses lanes when turning. This, in my opinion, is symbolic of later on when he breaks his own rules. (I know these are movies, but someone had to write them).

So, we can write a lot of pretty words, we can amuse ourselves by writing pages of history and detail for our characters, and we can overload our stories with obvious details. Or, we can write pretty words, sprinkle them with important details, and say a lot with just a little.


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