You Know Where the Devil Is

In the details, right? Writing my brief review of the nonfiction book Spycraft this week started me thinking about details, because that book provided them in encyclopedic proportion (bad choice for an audio read; I should have bought a dead-tree copy instead). In my own writing and in reading the work of some twenty-five or thirty other newish writers, I’m well aware of the many ways details trip us up.

Writing description is a tightrope walker’s game. Authors have to include enough detail to put a picture (the right one) in the reader’s mind without being tedious. In the Victorian era, readers loved detail, and that’s part of what makes reading those novels hard for many people today, living life in the fast lane. Victorian detail came in long loopy sentences, but less ornate approaches can stimulate pictures in readers’ minds equally effectively. Read Cormac McCarthy to find starkly simple detail, yet surgically precise description: “The night was falling down from the east and the darkness that passed over them came in a sudden breath of cold and stillness and passed on. As if the darkness had a soul itself that was the sun’s assassin hurrying to the west, as once men did believe, as they may believe again” [The Crossing]. (McCarthy also teaches the subtle power of “and.”)

tightrope walker


When the writer’s balance gets off—too much, too little—problems such as these occur: Pure decoration—a lot needs to be happening at different levels when moving a plot along, and it can be distracting when writers stop the action to explain that a particular weed was “no more than knee-high and had white, daisy-like flowers, each the size of a dime and centered with a bold dot of eggyolk yellow, and erupted in drifts along the dusty roadside,” if those weeds are never going to matter in the story. In Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (recent winner of the 2014 Edgar award), he describes in detail a young punk’s Deuce Coupe, black with red and orange flames painted along the sides. The punk and the car figure prominently in the story, and, in subsequent mentions, all Krueger needs to do is mention the flames and the whole image—in all its symbolism—is brought back.

The irrelevant detail (or “Chekhov’s gun”)—Anton Chekhov famously said, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” I hate finishing a book with that “Whatever happened to—” feeling about some vividly described character or thing. Yes, authors can include red herrings, but they ultimately have to be understood as such. At the same time, the groundwork for the resolution of the plot—and in mystery-writing, the clues—must be artfully laid so that the ending seems true, not a deus ex machina, nor totally predictable. Scott Turow’s first book, Presumed Innocent, gave such a neon-lit early clue that I knew the killer’s identity from that page on. Disappointed.

Other common problems are:

red plate, pie


The misplaced detail—It’s jarring to read a long description of a plate, a car, a dress—its shape, material, use, whatever—and then, five pages or paragraphs later, after the reader has formed a firm picture of this plate/car/dress, provide the additional information that it’s red. All such basic descriptive details need to be in one place. And should include the shade of red: cherry, scarlet, maroon. You may ask, what difference does it make whether the damn plate is blue or red? Color matters. I will assume the author made a thoughtful choice.

The lack of sensory detail—to engage readers, details need to vary—not always to appear as if the writer was copying off the character’s driver’s license—and to appeal to more than the sense of sight (“I saw her cooking”). They need to describe characteristics that demand our other senses, too, those we can feel, hear, taste, and smell. Was Mom in the kitchen cooking, or did the clattering pans reveal Grandma had arrived and the rich aroma of sizzling chicken fat mixed with the burnt-sugar smell of caramel assure Sunday dinner would be a feast?

Details about characters—my writing coach, Lauren B. Davis, gave the perfect summary of what to aspire to in describing a character. What to aim for, she said, are details that don’t just tell how a character looks, but who he is. Two examples from Margaret Atwood: “(She wore) penitential colours—less like something she’d chosen to put on than like something she’d been locked up in.” Or “He’s a large man, Walter—square-edged, like a plinth, with a neck that is not so much a neck as an extra shoulder” (both from The Blind Assassin).

To sum up, while details brings a story to life—writers need not too many, not too few, and just the right ones, Goldilocks.