There Are No Throw-Away Details

A few weeks ago, I went to a writers conference and sat in a great session about detail, taught by Hallie Ephron. She asked us all to think of a character from one of our stories and then imagine what was on that person’s desk at work. (Or you could imagine what was on the person’s dresser at home, if he/she doesn’t work. Or perhaps the job isn’t located in an office, in that case, what does the personal workspace look like?)

How hard do we really work to nail down the unique details?

Okay, you get the gist. Now, just start to brainstorm what is on the desk or in the personal workspace. My first instinct for my character on that day, who happened to be the pastor of a church, was to list the normal items that might be on a desk. A computer, paper, pens, notepad, a calendar. But Hallie’s point was that these kinds of details were not the right ones. None of them told us anything about the character. I brainstormed again, this time looking for the details that said something specific about my character. He had a pair of silver wire-framed glasses, a Lutheran hymnal, which had a plain red cover with a simple gold cross embossed on the front, an old-fashioned camera and a gold-framed photograph of his daughter.

Every single description we write in a story is important. You might be reading this thinking, “Well, duh.” But here’s the deal. How hard do you (me) really work to nail down the unique details? Is the needle on your unique meter pushing into the red zone? I think it’s worth looking at. I think it’s worth going back to a draft and reading it just for the details alone. Not the action, not the arc, not the plot, not the emotion. Just the details.

In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says,

A detail is “definite” and “concrete” when it appeals to the senses. It should be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched.

In the Art of Fiction, John Gardner says that the novelist

…gives us such details about the streets, stores, weather, politics, and concerns of Cleveland (or wherever the setting is) and such details about the looks, gestures, and experiences of his characters that we cannot help believing that the story he tells us is true.

There are no fillers. Every character should be unique. Every setting should be unique. Every situation should be unique. Every action and reaction, every response should be unique. There are no throw-away details.

Photo: lrargerich Luis Argerich / Flickr Creative Commons

6 Comments on “There Are No Throw-Away Details”

  1. It’s good to have this reminder! Details reflect character. They hint at past, present and future conflict. A few well-placed details can change the whole mood of a story. This goes back to our discussion about the importance of the right word and The New Yorker essay about Cheever’s style.

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