details in writing

The Details Please

Without detail, a story depicts anything and nothing.

It’s easy to put broad strokes on paper. Writing, though, is a fine art, and fine writing relies on precision. Fine writing requires the writer to dig beneath the vague and clichéd for details tailor-fit to content. Fine writing expects the writer to observe humanity, to pay attention to words, and to make choices that immerse readers in an experience. The writer’s every word must be razor-sharp, cut with a surgeon’s scalpel.

The person moved through the place is generic. The fugitive psych patient hauled ass down Piggly Wiggly’s diaper aisle in Bastrop, Texas is vivid. Which of the two sentences appeals to you?

For me, as with most readers, I need something to care about. Grab my interest. Arouse my curiosity. Who wants to hear about someone moving through a place? But a psych patient on the lam and hauling ass down the diaper aisle of a rural Texas grocer? That’s something I’d stick around to watch.

Readers need details to have a reaction, and reaction is the end-all of writing. Reaction is the writer’s purpose. It’s also the reader’s purpose. Think about that. Hold it in your mind and ask of everything you write, Will my readers react to this? How can I heighten their reaction? Fail to provoke them, leave them indifferent, and readers quit.

Details command the page. I’m not talking about passages of description. I’m talking about a specific word, one after another. Readers want to witness events—and not as rubberneckers on the fringe of a scene. Readers want words that plant them smack in the action. Give them detail.

If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers…are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures. —Strunk and White, The Elements of Style

Style is that use of language that creates a vivid, full-color image, with sound and smell and other sensory effects, in the reader’s mind; and that is all. It is not there for its own sake, nor to tell the reader how smart the author is. Remember: what lasts in the reader’s mind is not the phrase but the effect the phrase created: laughter, tears, pain, joy. —Isaac Asimov

Consider the following passage—

As I was walking along, suddenly I noticed that there were a lot of grasshoppers. They were all over the place. There really were quite a lot of them, so many that I thought I was being attacked. There were all different kinds, and they were all over everything.

What do you think? Interesting? Perhaps you’re saying, Well, I’m just not into in grasshoppers. Or maybe the passivity put you to sleep. Besides the lack of strong verbs , the imagery lacks the color and definition of detail.

Now read Annie Dillard’s account, excerpted from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—

Every step I took detonated the grass. A blast of bodies like shrapnel exploded around me; the air burst and whirred. There were grasshoppers of all sizes, grasshoppers yellow, green and black, short-horned, long-horned, slant-faced, band-winged, spur-throated, cone-headed, pygmy, spotted, striped and barred. They sprang in salvos, dropped in the air, and clung unevenly to stems and blades with their legs spread for balance, as redwings ride cattail reeds. They clattered around my ears; they ricocheted off my calves with an instant clutch and release of tiny legs.

The latter paragraph captures an event. We experience the storm of grasshoppers. Our eyes dart as they bound around us. We feel the pelting on our skin and hear the buzz of flight. While the first paragraph leaves us unamused, the second recalls a sense of childhood wonder.

Turn your attention to Dillard’s choice of verbs—detonated… burst and whirred… sprang, dropped, clung… clattered… ricocheted. Verbs provide the fuel. The precision and power of strong verbs wick through each sentence and keep the flame blue-hot. When a passage moves, readers move. (Recommended Reading: The three part series on active voice)

A blast of bodies like shrapnel gives us sensory detail we can see, hear, and feel. Clung unevenly to stems, for me, brings to mind strands of green bowing beneath a grasshopper’s weight. Who hasn’t felt the clutch and release of tiny legs?

Dillard treats her subject with a surfeit of detail, including a line that reads likes a classification of the species. Too much detail? If ever you disagree with a writer’s choice, ask yourself why the writer made the choice, what the choice accomplishes. The litany of detail in this case—short-horned, long-horned, slant-faced, band-winged, spur-throated, etcetera—emphasizes the narrator’s focus. Although the detail exceeds our knowledge, it demonstrates the narrator’s knowledge and appreciation of grasshoppers. It conveys her passion. Without it, the sense of childhood wonder would be lost on us. With it, we flow in the beat, each of seeing what our imaginations grab onto.

John Gardner—

Detail is the life blood of fiction.

Detail is the life blood of writing—period. Detail differentiates one person from another, one act from another, one place from any other coordinates in time, space, and imagination. Detail casts the illusion that populates the reader’s mindscape. Detail brings the magic.

Again, John Gardner—

If the dream is to be vivid, the writer’s “language signals”—his words, rhythms, metaphors, and so on—must be sharp and sufficient: if they’re vague, careless, blurry, or if there aren’t enough of them to let us see clearly what is being presented, then the dream as we dream it will be cloudy, confusing, ultimately annoying and boring.


Three degree separate life from the death-threat of heat stroke or hypothermia. Three degrees are anything but meaningless.

Sun exposure, first degree burn. Flame to flesh—disintegrated skin, excruciating pain, intensive care—third degree burn.

Do your words tint the page or do they set them on fire? Write so hot that the reader’s fingertips ache. He jostles in his seat. Antsy to turn the page, he can’t read fast enough.

Is it a noise or a blat? An item or a toothbrush with bristles parted like the Red Sea? A structure or a glass needle piercing the stratosphere? A person or a blued-hair lady with exposed scalp inch-worming her walker to the curb? Don’t settle with categorical nouns—noise, item, structure, person. Give readers something to see. Telescope in to the specific noise, the exact item, the precise structure, and that one person among millions. Show us who is doing what, and we’ll care.

Drill down.

Plant→tree→maple→sugar maple→sugar maple with perfect symmetry→sugar maple, full and round in autumn amber, scarlet, orange, russet, and gold

Drill down to the level that tailor-fits the content. Maybe your piece calls for something like: the two-hundred-year-old maple at the center of town. Or maybe the tone you’re after needs something along the lines of: The sugar maple rose from a pallet reflecting its crown of amber, garnet, fire opal, and gold, as if the artist had just set down her brush.

Choose details that materialize scene and atmosphere, persons, events. Choose details that individualize and endure in snapshots of memory.

Nonfiction should be easy to write, don’t you think? All a writer has to do is look around, observe and note the detail. Let’s look at an example, excerpted from “Rough, Tough and Rowdy Robert Mitchum” written by James W. Seymore Jr. and published in People Magazine, February 14, 1983.

The crammed press party at Beverly Hills’ elegant Bistro tinkles convivially until the figure of Robert Mitchum, face as impassive as an Aztec’s, bulks in the doorway. At 65, he looks years younger and as broad as ever. His 6’1” frame supports a paunch now, but his stiff-backed presence is almost insolently imposing. The babble of voices drops. People turn from the other stars present—Ali MacGraw, Polly Bergen, John Houseman among them—and whispers of “mitchummitchummitchum” whip around the room. Publicists and brass from ABC and Paramount, here to launch their biggest gamble of the year, the 18-hour maxiseries The Winds of War, crowd up. They paid him $1 million to play the lead in their $40 million adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1971 best-seller, and they want to show him off.

Has the writer placed you at the Bistro? I’m there, I turn to see Mitchum filling the doorway. The hairs on my arms rise as the hush snuffs out the tinkle of ice and chatter. But would I have written something like, the room falls silent and then a buzz ripples through the crowd? Probably. It’s sensory, it shows a reaction, but it’s not what the writer of the article chose. James W. Seymore Jr. drilled down. The babble of voices drops… whispers of mitchummitchummitchum whip around the room. His wording heightens my reaction. The details give me a sense of whiplash. I’m awed by the proximity of Hollywood’s golden era star, just as his publicist and ABC brass had hoped. I will watch The Winds of War to see Mitchum grace the screen, perhaps for the last time.

But the piece needs more than a studio agenda to sell the article. Promise to tell us about the man behind the Mitchum we know on screen and we’ll buy the magazine. Tell us something we don’t know, something we can’t read elsewhere—set the page of fire—and we’ll read the article in full.

Here’s how Seymore took up the challenge.

Mitchum is Mitchum, always has been. From the time he was about four years old, he’s been shitting in teachers hats, riding depression era boxcars, escaping chain gangs, joining dog-napping gangs, writing songs for cross-dressing cabaret acts, punching out cops, blowing saxophones, infuriating Kirk Douglas, hating Australians, writing lauded poetry, doing time, drinking endless bottles of vodka, smoking endless ‘pakalolos’, shagging starlets, golden-showering Ava Gardner, playing with his kids, gruntling his long understanding wife Dorothy, all with an air of bemused insouciance that makes him seem so damn cool… He was Homeric with his list of feminine charms, as well as vices, and the best piano rags and torch songs, illegal acts, betrayals, gunshots by musicians who defended the honor of their faultless playing, and the possibility of a whole dance floor yelling the word “Onions!” during the brief pause of a jazz number by Sidney Bechet.

Whoa. Who knew Mitchum—or any hellion gunslinger ever to live—had marshaled such a resume? Seymore trampled the challenge, dropping jaws and winning fans. I’d venture he raised the bar for celebrity bio pieces.

Seymour—wait for it—saw more. (That was bad.) Suffice it to say, Seymour observed and noted with precision. He also did his homework, as I doubt Mitchum sat down and spieled off a list of misdemeanors demonstrating his stoic, irreverent, and hedonistic take on life. Seymour dug and dug deep to come up with larger-than-life deeds to reveal this larger-than-life man, to show us his wildly unbridled and complex mindset. Precise, peculiar, and contrasted—we come away with a full picture of an exceptional individual. Seymour pit vice against virtue in a way that causes us to admire, empathize, and feel repulsed by the Hollywood glam-man. True, the details wouldn’t exist without Mitchum. But Seymour hunted, Seymour chose and arranged. Seymour is the man behind this bio that remains unprecedented in the 20-plus years since its publication.

How about another example? Mitchum’s hat’s trick brings to mind an article by Erik Hedegaard in the April 2010 issue of Men’s Journal called “Gerry the Sinner, Gerry the Saint”.

Gerard Butler is a foul-mouthed rake who bangs everything in sight—yet charming and unpretentious; a drunk, albeit reformed. And there it is in a nutshell, the key to Butler’s appeal. He’s a take-charge, foul-mouthed joker with a willingness to hug… He’s the kind of fellow who likes to pee in the shower and says that sometimes, while visiting friends, he’ll take a crap in a pot and hide it for them to find later. (He’s kidding about that, he says, but the way he says it, you never know.)

Details. In Gerard Butler’s case, how many of us would have been able to withhold the word outrageous? He’s an outrageous Irishman who grows more outrageous with drink… Even worse than vague words is abstract terminology—happy, sad, beautiful, angry—and the much-abused catchall class of superlatives. Outrageous may fly in conversation, but it fails to project an image in the mind. Words like happy, sad, beautiful, and angry register as dictionary entries that tell us what the writer should show us.

Let’s explore the difference between concrete and abstract writing in the second post of this series, Detail or Distraction

For More on Detail in Writing
Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist