Writing Alchemy: 5 Tips for Using Detail in Your Writing

by Kendra Bonnett on June 5, 2012

catnav-alchemy-activePost #50 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

When I was in high school, Bayne Kelley was my English teacher. He was an excellent teacher with inexhaustible patience and a good sense of humor. I know because he put up with me. But put a red pen in his hand and he turned into Attila the Pun. Grammar and its usage was his war, and his battles raged across the paper landscapes that were my weekly themes. Exclamation marks…avoid; commas…use. He taught me the difference between which and that and how to use each.

Mr. Kelley was such a stickler for grammar he had quit a job in advertising because he couldn’t abide their grammatical license. Someone used like instead of as in a headline–as in “Winston Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should.” That was enough to send him running and screaming from Madison Avenue and straight to our school.

I’m grateful he chose to slay my grammatical dragons. But oh some of our battles were fierce. At one point Mr. Kelley made me do penance by carrying a spiral notebook for my spelling mistakes. I had to copy each misspelled words 10 times.

Each week, when I received my corrected pages back, I had a hard time deciding whether or not he had actually corrected my theme or just opened a vein out of frustration. But I did learn…although some of his lessons took longer to sink in than others.

Because I’ve been writing so much about detail of late, I especially recall the first time I saw a certain comment on my paper. Mr. Kelley had almost the worst handwriting I had ever seen–second only to my doctor father. The scene when something like this:

“Excuse me, Mr. Kelley,” I’d said on more than one occasion, “what does that say?”
“And that?”
“Give evidence.”
“And finally, that word?”

He must have scribbled one or more of these words at least a half-dozen times throughout my paper. Give him evidence? I was baffled. I thought I had. Hadn’t I just written 500 words on the subject? What more proof did he want?

The funny thing is that I remember so many of the lessons, word distinctions and grammar rules that Mr. Kelley shared. But I cannot ever recall him trying to explain what he meant by evidence. Nor do I remember asking. I wish I had because I would have gotten a lot farther with my writing, a lot faster if I had.

Give Evidence = Show Don’t Tell = Details

Even as I was having trouble with providing evidence, so too was I forever telling. I just couldn’t figure out what it meant to show. And then one day it hit me. “Showing” means using words to create a scene readers can see in their mind.

So much started to become clear about the same time. My addiction to lazy adverbs, for example, was an extension of my problem with giving evidence. Now that was a real revelation. And that’s when I realized that every one of my issues was a symptom of one problem. Detail…or more precisely the lack of detail.

Without detail, I couldn’t:

  • Provide the kind of proof or evidence a reader needs to reach her own conclusions or buy into what I was saying.
  • Make my readers feel part of the scenes I wrote.
  • Express emotions without resorting to the lazy adverts…she said angrily while he agreed grudgingly.
  • Show the many dimensions of my characters and make their behavior believable.
  • Stop telling my stories.

Perhaps some of this sounds familiar, and you’ve been on your own journey to discover the power of detail. If you’ve figured this out, then congratulations. But while the pieces of the puzzle may now begin to fit together, there’s still the challenge of mining for details and getting them into your writing.

5 Dos and Don’ts for Writing with Details

  1. Use Details to Create a Vivid Word Picture: We’re most aware of detail when we’re describing something…the details of the child’s face, the variegated coloring of whites and greens in the leaves of a hosta, the rich peaty smell of a highland single-malt scotch, the sound of a mosquito that seemed to fill the darkened bedroom with it’s taunting buzz…zzzzz…youze is allz minez…zzzzz.
  2. Go Beyond Mere Description: Detail comes in many forms and it’s not just for sensory description. In fact, in Writing Alchemy Matilda and I explain techniques you can use to dig deep for details when developing character, identifying emotions, making dialogue more than a conversation and understanding significance of time and place.
  3. Too Much of Even a Good Thing is Bad: When you start actively looking, you’ll find detail everywhere. There’s detail, for example, in the many little steps a man takes to pack and light a pipe. Similarly, scan even the smallest kitchen, and you’ll have pages of detail. Take the appliances, cookbooks, utensils, pots, pans. They have colors, materials, surfaces. They tell stories about the owner, too. Are they cared for? Clean? Fancy or Simple? Old, new or nondescript? And so on. Your challenge as a writer will be to select the details that best convey your message…that help make a character stand out in a crowd, exhibit the emotions of a scene, place a scene in context. Pick well.
  4. Avoid the Unintended Red Herring: And in the process of winnowing through your details to find the best ones to include, be careful of the detail that leads a reader astray. Take, for example, our man smoking a pipe in London pub. The main characters Robin and Trevor are having an argument, but the author keeps describing the man who after packing his pipe with aromatic tobacco tries to light it with a butane lighter, but failing has to cross the room to the bar to ask for some matches. If this person has nothing to do with the scene other than background, don’t go overboard with the detail. Now, maybe Robin notices the smell of the tobacco for a brief moment, becomes distracted and loses her train of thought. Or perhaps the man asks Trevor for a match but because Trevor doesn’t smoke, the man moves on to ask the barkeep. Keep your focus on the appropriate details.
  5. Don’t Be a Name Dropper: Let’s return to the pub. But it’s not just any pub, it’s The Volunteer at 245-247 Baker Street. That’s great detail because it places the pub just a few doors from the home of Sherlock Holmes (221B Baker Street). We go inside and see a woman pull a pair of Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses from her Chanel bag. That’s enough detail to tell us she is wealthy. We don’t need to know she patted the breast pocket of her Lanvin tweed blouse and apparently not finding what she was looking for started going through the pockets of her Dylan George jeans. While she is hunting for a slip of paper, her companion is sipping on Lagavulin single malt scotch served in a Waterford Lismore whiskey glass and dining on Mackenzie Limited kippers, stilton blue cheese from Cropwell Bishop and Carr’s whole wheat digestive biscuits. We get the point, these women can afford the best, but a little name dropping goes a long way.

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