Devil in the Details
J.V. Jones
Oct 24th : 2007

Be specific. That’s one of the most important pieces of advice writers receive, and one of the easiest ones to accomplish. Whether you’re describing a setting or writing action you need to provide details to give the scene weight and realism. The broader your descriptions the less powerful they will be. “The man was holding a gun” is not as scary as “The man was holding a Colt Anaconda. Thirteen inches long and stainless steel, it had to weigh close to four pounds.” Details that are credible and specific persuade us better than generic descriptions. We assume the writer knows what he’s talking about. He’s the expert; we believe him and we believe in the scene.

Coming up with realistic details takes practice but once you get the hang of it it’s relatively easy. First you have to look at every noun you write--object names, place names--and think about them. Isolate them in your mind. What’s unusual about this item/person/place? What’s unique here? What can I say about this object that provides a brief, memorable sentence? What’s been said about this object countless times before? What hasn’t? When you start asking yourself these questions you’ll develop a new awareness as you write. Say you have a character in the woods. Are the trees hardwood or softwood? What’s the groundcover? Has it been raining? What caused the holes in the tree trunks? Beatles? Woodpeckers? Mice? When your character steps on the pine needles how do they smell? Once you’ve got his far you’ll have to start hitting the books (or the woods). As the writer you need to know what’s typical and atypical about the woods in the area you’re describing. You need to know the names of the plants, trees, insects and animals.

You need to know them and then not use them. The catch of the specific details is that they must be used sparingly. They need to be kept to a sentence or two, or you risk clogging up your story with descriptions. If the details are chosen well they’ll do the work of an entire paragraph. Remember the Colt Anaconda? It weighs four pounds: it’s going to take a big man to wield it. It’s a serious, professional weapon too, not likely to be kept in the average bedside drawer. And it’s stainless steel: top of the line, expensive.

If you pick your details right they’ll work overtime. Being specific, yet restrained, makes for a tight, credible narrative.