I hate to beat a dead horse, but I thought a post about details would be a nice way to continue on from the previous discussion about geography as they connect. If you’ve taken any classes in creative writing or English you’ve likely already heard this, in fact, you have probably heard this several times, but as I have created a blog about the ins and outs of writing fiction I can’t just ignore the topic. It’s much too important for that. So I guess that brings us to our next post…
The devil really is in the details. One of the most important things in any story is for your readers to be able to imagine what you imagine when you write. You want your readers to feel as if they are in the world you have created, whether your world is something realistic or the world on an alien planet. People don’t want to read a summary of a story, they want to feel a part of the story. The best way to do this is, of course, by using sensory details.
When you are writing sensory details you don’t simply want to describe everything in the room and explain that the stove was next to the sink which was next to the bread on the counter. No one wants to read that. It’s boring and it doesn’t really tell the reader anything tangible about the place.
If you use an opportunity for description wisely you can make a scene that might otherwise be mundane into a scene that sticks in the reader’s mind. This is one of the things that separates good writing from a bad writer. Chances are, even if you weren’t aware of it, the best story or poem you’ve ever read has descriptions that are magical enough to make you keep thinking about them hours later.
When we talk about sensory details this doesn’t just pertain to what you see but also what you hear, smell, feel, and sometimes even taste. These types of details are what will bring the readers into your writing. In DESCRIPTIVE & SENSORY DETAIL the author writes, “It is important to remember that human beings learn about the world through using the five senses. They are our primary source of knowledge about the world,” a statement that all writers need to think about when they are writing creatively. When I’m writing and I realize that I’m not using enough sensory details, I stop and think about the setting I have just introduced (or in some cases a setting I have already introduced but has changed in some important way). I think about what I see in my head for the setting. To use the kitchen example again, I imagine what the cupboards look like, are they painted or stained wood? What color or type of wood are they? Does the fridge have some sort of distinguishing feature that needs to be described or does it need to mentioned at all? Is the character familiar with the kitchen and needs to be described as someone familiar with it might describe it, filled with memories, or is it new and alien to them? Is the kitchen used a lot or is it barely touched and what kind of scents and images might come with that?
These kinds of details become especially important in mystery novels. If you’ve read any you’ve probably had a taste of this. The smallest detail can add up to the solution of the mystery, but you can’t throw in a random small detail like this because adding up the clues will become much too easy for your reader. If you throw in a small important detail among some other not important details, the readers will have a much more difficult time tying the pieces together before everything is revealed in the end.
Using what I discussed above here are some examples of a good and bad ways to describe a setting.
“I walked into the kitchen with John, there was a tray of muffins on the counter that looked delicious, but I didn’t dare eat one without permission. The sat at the table against the wall, waiting for the invitation to eat one of the muffins.’Muffin?’ John held out the pan and I took one.”
‘Muffin?’ John held out the pan and I took one.”
“The kitchen was normal, like many others I’d seen, the fridge was in the corner and a few counter spaces away sat the sink. Then there was more counter space and the stove. A pan of muffins sat next to the stove. I sat down at the table, hoping to be offered one.
‘Muffin?’ John offered. I took one from the pan and bit into it. It was delicious.”
Both of these may give a little layout as to how the kitchen looks, but we all know how a kitchen looks, and these descriptions give nothing tangible to the audience.
“As I followed John into the kitchen the smell of fresh-baked blueberry muffins hit me. There was flour all over the counter and spilled on the floor. The sunlight shined through the window lighting the painted yellow cabinets and making the entire room look like a lemon. John lifted the muffin pan from the counter with a purple and red striped pot holder. The old pan bent with the weight of the blueberry muffins.
‘Muffin?’ I took one from the proffered pan and peeled back the pale green liner. I put the muffin up to my lips, inhaling the sweet scent again before taking a bite. It crumbled as I bit down on it, the moisture of the muffin was just right and I held my other hand beneath it to catch the crumbs.
‘who taught you how to bake like this?’ I asked the question thickly as I chewed the muffin.”
With this description, the readers can not only see the kitchen in a new light, but they can almost taste the muffin too. I know just writing the damn thing makes me want a muffin. Additionally, you’ll see the length of the good description was longer. If you’re writing a novel this can especially be important. When you write descriptions like this, it will take up more space without adding useless filler which any developed writer can tell you is a bad thing.
However, don’t make the structure of your descriptions the same every time or it will become repetitive. Also don’t overdo your descriptions as is touched on a bit more in Using Setting & Description in Creative, yet Crucial Ways, as this will become tedious and overwhelming for your readers.
Remember the details in your own writing and look for the details in the fiction and poetry that you read and you’ll find your writing getting better and better.
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