Sunday, January 3, 2010

Details, Details, Details!

In writing for childen we are often advised to keep our eye on the action, the plot engine, and the goal of the protagonist. Pause for description or too much information, we are told, and the reader (or worse yet, the agent or editor) just may close the book. Forever.

But a phrase in Diane Schoemperlen's's Our Lady of the Lost and Found caught my eye yesterday: "I have put my faith in the transformative power of the telling detail, however small and apparently insignificant."

That set me to thinking about why I read, and yes, why I read as a child. I loved (and still do) the descriptive passages that transported me to another time and place. In my reading today, I stopped to savor the descriptive details I that encountered:

Verlyn Klinkenborg, in today's Times essay, Snowing Forward, calls the color of the winter sky "diluted turquoise." Dicken's description of the London cold in A Christmas Carol as "piercing, searching, biting," makes the reader rub his fingers together just for warmth. In The Long Winter, Wilder tells us "the blizzard was scouring against the walls and the winds squealed and moaned in the stovepipe." With these words she places the reader smack in the middle of the prairie storm.

So in my revisions this coming year, I will be adding more detail, desperately trying, of course, to avoid making the plot engine conk out. As Schoemperlen says, "the most ordinary object becomes extraordinary in the process of observing it and putting it into words."


  1. When I'm getting critiqued, most people notice the detail I use, and enjoy it (some people don't like it, I must admit). They say they can picture the characters in their heads. I myself don't like it when I'm reading and the characters or setting isn't fleshed out for me. Of course some authors go overboard with detail, but the right amount does wonders for a book.

  2. Writing is a balancing act. Detail is a matter of taste - you can't write a story that's perfect for everyone. You have to write the one that's perfect for you.

    I just finished STRIPES OF THE SIDESTEP WOLF by Sonya Hartnett. It's a beautifully written story with TONS of detail.

  3. It's hard to imagine a story without detail. For me detail, small or large, provides the skeletal structure upon which my imagination can form pictures. Detail is the armature, and I the reader, am the sculptor creating the whole image.