Unexpected Detail In Fiction

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.

Unexpected detail:

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.

Unexpected reaction:

“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.


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