Some of the most powerful details in fiction are the ones we don’t expect. We might call this ironic detail, or perhaps we should just stick with ‘surprise’. Good stories are all about surprise.
A huge amount of information about character and backstory can be conveyed through small detail.Sarah Waters
Good writing is specific writing, and specific writing is good writing. Be specific. “No ideas but in things,” wrote William Carlos Williams—the five most golden words there ever were, for a writer. Don’t tell us it was hot, but instead, like Eudora Welty, remind us that the fading pink roses were the color of a bird dog’s panting tongue. That the ceaseless sound of the cicadas in the trees high overhead was like the sound of grain being poured into a metal bucket. Specificity is the lever, the pry bar, by which you lift up new universes and make readers believe all things.Rick Bass
Expected detail: The smell of urine on a person is disgusting.
A slight but persistent smell of urine […] would have disgusted me on a woman but […] seemed in his case not just forgivable but somehow an expression of ancient privilege. When I went into the bathroom after he had been there, it was like the lair of some mangy, still powerful beast.
Alice Munro, “Cortes Island“
Expected reaction: When you and your family are involved in a car accident, you are pleased to find everyone alive.
“But nobody’s killed,” June Star said with disappointment
Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find“
Expected detail: When a character sets about murdering another character right in front of you, you’d expect their voice to change from ‘thin and pleasant’ to ‘growly and horrible’ or something like that.
Unexpected: When the character doing the murdering doesn’t change their voice. Instead, against expectation, their voice only becomes more thin and pleasant.
I’m talking about Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web, showing Wilbur for the first time how she kills a fly.
- Body language beats pretty much ONLY work when they are unexpected.
- Same goes for adverbs in dialogue tags, otherwise these adverbs garner the derisive term ‘Tom Swifty‘.
- Details play all sorts of different functions in a story. See: Levels of Details in Literature.
- The Electric Grandmother is a teleplay for kids and includes resonant imagery of a grandmother who squirts milk from her finger. This is the exact detail will remain in the viewer’s mind and we can take some writing lessons from that.
- The viral Dinosaurs In Love song written by a four-year-old also includes some beautifully resonant and unexpected detail. (It’s the cucumber!)