Tuesday, February 28, 2012

For Writers The Devil Is In The Details

Details, details, details.  As writers we need them, and are told time and again not to overdo them.  Both admonitions are correct.

But, we can be come such masters of our own written work, such orchestrators of our stories that things happen.  Oh, don't get me wrong, many times it's very good things, but there can be others as well, things that simply aren't expected.

As an example, have you written a story where the descriptions of your characters are non-existent or the setting one that simply disappears?  I have. When I was just beginning I wrote a story.  My then helpful Godmother/acting editor pointed out she loved the story.  Had to read it a couple of times in fact to figure out what was wrong.  Turns out she had no idea what my characters looked like.  I'd totally written the story but left out little details like short, tall, fat, skinny, long hair, short, you know, the things that let us identify with characters. 

That same thing can happen with setting. You're telling a story.  The setting is crystal clear in your mind. You, as the writer, see everything perfectly, so perfectly in fact that you forget your reader and kind of presume since you know - they know.

Well, they don't. Give your reader information as you go along. It doesn't have to be, nor should it be a long, drawn out description of where they are, but if you put your characters inside a building, in an office, let your readers know if it's an opulent office or a humble cubicle.  Is there a window or are they across the room beyond the their cubicles?  Is it comfortable or cramped, cluttered or tidy, light or dark, private or in the open with others around to hear conversations. All those details, scattered through your scene gives your readers visual clues to the setting so they don't visualize your story in a hazy, undefined white space like your unattended computer screen with a new document as yet untracked by words and punctuation. It also provides the readers of your novel or short story with opportunity to get to know your character better.

Here's another thing. If we, your readers, can't see the space the characters are moving in, it turns your characters into talking heads and that is deadly when you're writing a story and want to move it forward.

So take the time to read through your writing to see what you've provided your reader in the way of setting. Don't let yours be one of the stories with a vanishing setting - one you begin, but just trail off into nothingness. Take advantage of the opportunity to flesh out the setting to write your story to life and enjoy the opportunity to sidle up to your character and really learn what makes them tick. Read some passages from your favorite books, just pick a few at random and read. Not the different ways different writers create the texture of the background and enhance without turning it into a lengthy exposition.


Here goes -
without description

John stormed into Larry's office and slammed the door.
    "What the hell did you do?" John demanded.
    "Huh, what?"
    "You know what I'm talking about."
    "I do?"
    "The Belmont case, you threw the damn case like a bad wrestler throws a bout."

Okay, a little excitement there, just because of the confrontation.  No details, nothing to let your readers bond with your characters.

So, how about:

John flung the door open to Larry's office, stormed in and slammed it behind him rattling the glass in the door. The heels of his shoes clicked imperiously on tile flooring. "What the hell did you do?" John demanded.

Hunched over his desk Larry peered up at his friend through designer glasses and squinted eyes focusing past the bankers lamp that pooled light on his work. A malfunctioning printer clicked, whirred and stuttered on a misfed sheet behind him. "Huh?  What?"

John strode past the age-patined maple desk to the window that looked out from the 40th floor and stared out of it, not looking at Larry.  "You know what I'm talking about."

"I do?" Larry ticked the pen he held on the desk blotter.

John's shoulders slumped.  He turned and dropped into the leather chair across from Larry.  "The Belmont case, you threw the damn case like a bad wrestler throws a bout."

Okay?  So it isn't the best, but it's a hint.  Not only do you see more of the surroundings, but it brings out a bit more of the character of John and Larry. Be aware of it, play with it. Have fun.


  1. Great advice, Peggy. Sometimes I forget one or the other and have to add it in later.

    1. I know what you mean, I still do it myself, I think we all do sometimes - get so wrapped up in our stories we forget to let everyone else in on the back-story.


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