When we think about detail, we tend to think big and bold, and the lush, beautiful descriptions that teem with colour and visual prompts; the kind of thing that should fill a novel, but while these details help make a story, it’s often the smaller details that give it that extra dimension. That’s because sometimes we notice smaller details more than we do huge detail. It may be that our brains are wired to notice these thing.
Writing is no different – minute details can add to the narrative in a subtle way which still enhances the story.
So what kinds of detail make a difference?
The devil really is in the detail. How you create that detail is up to you, but the effect you can create with it is the key to good fiction, because the correct balance of detail – from the biggest detail to the smallest, goes a long way to help make the story memorable rather than forgettable.
Many writers forget the small detail, simply because they assume small details don’t matter, but in the grand scheme of things, they actually do matter. The small details do more than highlight a splinter of information that the reader might otherwise overlook, they actually have many functions, because unlike huge swathes of detail, we use the small details to provoke the reader’s senses – the olfactory, auditory, gustatory, kinaesthetic and the visual.
The sense of smell – although in reality the reader cannot possibly smell anything in written a book, small details within the description allow their senses to imagine it. So the strong earthy aroma of coffee from a café, the sweetness of honeysuckle on the breeze or the hint of freshly cut grass – they all help the reader visualise the scene. Not only that, but olfactory details takes them from the ordinary into the extraordinary; it creates a sense of atmosphere and mood and nostalgia, because the one thing we all know is true - imagining certain smells can evoke different memories, especially ones from our childhood.
If you can evoke these moods and feelings within your reader, you also create a connection, a sense of immediacy.
Again, when reading, the reader can’t physically hear anything other the words in their mind, so it’s up to the writer to help the reader hear all that is going on, and in some scenes small details can go a long way. For instance, the constant drip of a tap in the distance can create atmosphere. Or what about the gentle hum of rain on a roof? What mood could it create? The rustle of leaves. The sound of someone breathing...or whispers.
They’re all small details on their own which can create greater detail in context to the entire scene. The greater the detail in this sense, the greater the reaction you invoke in your reader.
Food is one of those things writers tend to forget about – completely. They forget that their protagonist hasn’t eaten for days on end in the novel, or they forget that the protagonist is superhuman and doesn’t actually need food (or the bathroom, for that matter). How many of your characters go through life changing events and yet never stop to actually eat anything or go to the bathroom?
Of course, a scene doesn’t always require that the character is eating to describe different scents, but small sensory details that hint at aromas can help build a scene for the reader.
Gustatory details can be something as simple as describing the sweetness of sugar on a pancake, or the sour taste of medicine, or maybe the tingling freshness of mint. And surprisingly, gustatory detail can also evoke nostalgic memories for readers.
Kinaesthetic refers to the physical – the sense of touch, what the character feels when he touches something. Not only that but it also refers to external stimulation such as the heat of the sun on the face, the feeling of a fly on the hand, the feel of water around the body when we’re swimming.
This type of detail is especially effective when in character POV, where the reader is privy to the main character’s thoughts and feelings, so the writer can explore the feel of someone else’s skin in an intimate scene for example, or the feel of cool raindrops during a stormy scene. Or perhaps it could describe the fierceness of the sun’s heat in desolate landscape.
Little details like this add the realism of your scenes, because the reader will know what these sensations feel like and they will attribute a memory to it, this creating that all important connection and sense of immediacy.
The most obvious detail that writers use is the visual. There are so many details that can evoke a huge range of imagery for the reader that the visual encompasses so many things, because the visual is virtually all description.
But it’s the detail that counts. Small details can sometimes be symbolic, and symbolism plays an important role in writing. That detail could anything, like a colour, or a certain flower. Perhaps it’s starkness of a landscape, or the darkness of an abandoned building. It can be absolutely anything.
Details create more than background information. They can provide the reader with sensory snippets which, in turn, can create a virtual landscape in the reader’s mind.
The beauty of such details is that you don’t have to overdo them – not every scene requires pages of luscious and rich description. It’s all about subtlety. Let the details stand out in smaller scenes; make the reader notice certain things, make them think, make them wonder, but above all, make them visualise.
Next week: Common word confusions