In storytelling, not every detail is necessary for the plot. In which case, why keep it? Writers are told to cut, cut, cut. But don’t cut everything, just because it doesn’t advance the plot. There are multiple kinds of fictional detail, each performing different functions.
James Wood has his own taxonomy of detail:
On-duty and Off-duty Detail
There is a conventional but modern fondness for quiet but “telling” detail: “The detective noticed that Carla’s hairband was surprisingly dirty.” If there is such a thing as a telling detail, then there must be such a thing as an untelling detail, no? A better distinction might be between what I would call “off-duty” and “on-duty” detail; the off-duty detail is part of the standing army of life, as it were–it is always ready to be activated. Literature is full of such off-duty detail. […] Nineteenth-century realism, from Balzac on, creates such an abundance of detail that the modern reader has come to expect of narrative that it will always contain a certain superfluity, a built-in redundancy, that it will carry more detail than it needs. In other words, fiction builds into itself a lot of surplus detail just as life is full of surplus details.
— James Wood, How Fiction Works
There’s a great danger inherent in a writer’s choice of ‘telling detail’. The detail might ‘tell’ the writer’s own prejudices. Be mindful of the detail chosen to ‘tell’ the reader a character is:
- not white
In these cases, it’s generally safer to tell rather than ‘show’ via ‘telling detail’. Stereotypes are a useful shortcut between writer and reader, but only when writer and reader are complicit in their own privilege to the point where they don’t even see it themselves.
Barthes’s Referential Illusion
Although surplus detail feels like it’s meant to denote what’s ‘real’, all it does is signify it.
Realism in general, it is implied, is just such a business of false denotation. […] Realism offers the appearance of reality but is in fact utterly fake–what [Roland] Barthes calls “the referential illusion.” […] those laurel-leaf haircuts worn by the actors in Hollywood “Roman” films signify “Romanness” in the way that Flaubert’s barometer signifies “realness”.
— How Fiction Works
No detail in fiction is ever truly random, because the writer has chosen to include it, starting from nothing.
Therein lies the difference between fiction and real life. If I walk down a street I’m obliged to take in everything my mind registers, whether I want to or not, but the fiction author picks and chooses the detail most relevant to the reader.
When choosing detail, the storyteller:
- evokes an atmosphere
- paints a much wider setting with minimal clues to reader
- might introduce or reinforce imagery (e.g. a stormy sky in the gothic novel foretells calamity)
In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes of the ‘Flaubertian Randomness of Detail’.
So the modern reader accepts a few things without question:
- The narrator notices stuff that ordinary people walking around would not notice, and can even make imagery out of mundane detail.
- For some reason, the narrator has gone to the trouble of writing it down.
- The narrator is able to pick and choose the detail which is relevant, unlike the rest of us, who walk down a street and take everything in, without any context for story. What we see when we walk down a street may well set off a chain of thoughts, but we’re not in full control of that chain.
‘The reader is happy enough to efface the labor of the writer in order to believe two further fictions: that the narrator was somehow “really there”, and that the narrator is not really a writer.’
– James Wood, from How Fiction Works, p55
Telling versus Lifeless Detail
Rose Tremain’s categorisation is simple:
Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one.
– Rose Tremain
Novelist Donna Tartt endows her characters, however minor, with lavish backstories. No detail is too small. ”Not everything has to serve the plot,” Tartt says. ”Dickens digresses. I like books that are big, busy and bustling. Novels are capacious. Those casual walk-on parts create the illusion of life, which is baggy with people you never see again and get to know fleetingly.”
— from an interview with Donna Tartt, Sydney Morning Herald
Leave Out The Unrealistic Memories
Think of a significant moment in your life. Maybe you heard the Twin Towers had been bombed. Maybe someone died. Maybe a stalker chased you through a park.
Which of the details do you remember from that moment?
I’m thinking of one. I remember:
- – What I said
- – How I felt at the time
- – Sequence of events
- – How I felt afterwards
What I don’t remember:
- – What he looked like, much
- – What he said
- – The colour of his eyes!
- – His rippling forearm
- – The sweat across his brow.
And this, fellow writers, must have consequences in fiction. When our viewpoint character looks back in time, don’t get too specific. Memory doesn’t work like that.
We all have an ongoing narrative inside our heads, the narrative that is spoken aloud if a friend asks a question. That narrative feels deeply natural to me. We also hang on to scraps of dialogue. Our memories don’t usually serve us up whole scenes complete with dialogue.
– from an interview with Lydia Davis
An excellent example of remembered detail can be found in the aptly named “What Is Remembered“, a short story by Alice Munro. In this story, an older woman looks back at a time in her life when she was unfaithful to her husband. The details she remembers in the close third person narration are signifiers — they have stuck in her memory after all else has faded.
It was in a small, decent building, three or four stories high, inexpensive rather than cheap-looking. All that she would remember about it would be the glass bricks around the front entrance and the elaborate, heavy hi-fi equipment of that time, which seemed to be the only furniture in the living room.
She remembered his hazel-gray eyes, the close-up view of his coarse skin, a circle like an old scar beside his nose, the slick breadth of his chest as he reared up from her. But she could not have given a useful description of what he looked like. She believed that she had felt his presence so strongly, from the very beginning, that ordinary observation was not possible. Sudden recollection of even their early, unsure and tentative moments could still make her fold in on herself, as if to protect the raw surprise of her own body, the racketing of desire.
— Alice Munro
Robin Black is another short story writer who understands that memory has holes in it. When describing an event which happened 13 years earlier, here’s how she writes it:
Jeremy could only ever remember bits and pieces of those two weeks, the ones when [his daughter] was gone. Merciful amnesia, a friend once called it — except it wasn’t very merciful, because only the worst of it stuck with him. Or so he assumed. Like the first shock at her absence, as too many hours passed for it to be benign teenage tardiness; like walking the streets of London, night after night, as though she might have become a nocturnal creature waiting to reveal herself in the dark; like the dawning nightmarish realisation that he himself was a suspect in her disappearance.
— A Country Where You Once Lived by Robin Black
Description Must Work For Its Place
Hilary Mantel is basically saying what Lydia Davis is saying, and demonstrates why writing in close third person is easier (and more modern-sounding) than writing in a truly omniscient voice, for what details would a god notice?
Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.
– Hilary Mantel
Detail in Short Stories
Detail in a short story has to carry a lot of weight. Even more than in novels, everything means something.
In the short story, detail is transformed into metaphorical significance. In a novel, on the other hand, the particular can remain merely the particular. It exists to make the reader feel he/she knows the experience — to create verisimilitude.
— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity, edited by Per Winther
Raymond Carver offers a disclaimer: Even in a poem or a short story the language used to describe this detail does not, itself, have to be startling. Everyday words will still do the trick.
It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power.
— Raymond Carver, On Writing
Detail in Children’s Literature
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead won the Newbery Medal. A large part of that was because of her choice of detail. Stead makes every small detail matter. The Newbery judges chose the novel for making the small details important to the plot. Publishers Weekly added that even the smallest of details—Miranda’s name, her strange habits and why she carries A Wrinkle in Time with her—have a reason for their inclusion by the end of the novel.
Tips on writing memorable fiction with good use of detail, at Anne R Allen’s Blog
Are you a constant observer, consciously looking for things you can use as a writer?
I think I’m a very unobservant person, one who goes straight to concepts about people and ignores evidence to the contrary and the bric-a-brac surrounding that person. Stephen Spender said an amusing thing about Yeats—that he went for days on end without noticing anything, but then, about once a month, he would look out of a window and suddenly be aware of a swan or something, and it gave him such a stunning shock that he’d write a marvelous poem about it. That’s more the kind of way I operate: suddenly something pierces the reverie and self-absorption that fill my days, and I see with a tremendous flash the extraordinariness of that person or object or situation.
— The Paris Review interview, The Art of Fiction No. 49, by W. I. Scobie