A work of fiction must be created, as it were, brush stroke by brush stroke. The writer may have a vision of the big picture, but nothing works, particularly a plot, if the small, vivid, authenticating details are not there. Small, concrete details are usually the difference between a story that works and a story that fails, between a good piece of fiction writing and a great piece of fiction writing.
As a writer, you should be considering things like the books on a character’s book case, the paintings on his walls, the colors of his walls, the kind of car he drives, the kinds of clothes he wears, his tastes in food, in music, in movies, in lovers, in wines…
You do not necessarily have to have a lot of details. Certainly, you don’t want gratuitous details that will only bore your reader. Again—context is everything. In some stories, it may not be necessary to describe the main character’s looks at all or to mention what kind of car he drives or the town he lives in because those things may not be important to that particular story, but of course something else will be. For instance, in Ernest Hemingway‘s, “Hills Like White Elephants,” there is no description of the characters. How they look is not important. How they feel is. And their feelings are powerfully evoked through their dialogue. Knowing what the characters look like would not add to the story. Their physical appearances are just not important, not part of the issues they are struggling with or the emotions they are feeling.
You want to avoid details that don’t contribute to the reader’s intellectual and emotional pleasures, but more often than not, fictions are weak not because of gratuitous details but because of the lack of effective, sensuous details. Your reader should see, hear, feel, taste, and even smell the fictional world you’re creating. And you can stimulate your reader’s senses only with concrete, sensuous details.
Take risks. Avoid flat, merely authenticating details that the story may be better off without, but don’t be afraid of details with some emotional charge. Writers will sometimes, out of their fear of being sentimental, destroy an early draft of a story by stripping it of the details that gave it vitality. If you are moved by a detail as you write a story, there’s a chance the reader may also be moved. If you’re afraid of being called sentimental or of revealing something about yourself, you’re taking the risk of never being poignant and of committing the greatest sin—the one fatal sin that a writer can commit: being dull.
It’s generally the small details that will provide your fiction with not just immediacy but also with originality. If you write honestly about the way you view life, about your characters and the situations they find themselves in and the meanings and consequences of those situations and if you write vividly, stimulating your reader’s senses and making him feel truly a part of your fictional world, then the originality will exist in your work. It will exist primarily because you are a unique human being. No one in the world is going to imagine, interpret, or present exactly the same story.
“The big picture” premise of a story might not be much of anything new. Take, for instance, the first Rocky movie, the Academy Award winner for best picture in 1976. There’s much about the premise of Rocky that would strike a lot of people as trite: a down-and-out boxer named Rocky gets a chance at the title. Nothing very original about that. But what makes the movie work is that the characters come to life so that the audience knows them and is interested in them. Little details like Rocky’s pet turtles, the photographs on his walls, the hole in his tee-shirt, the phrases he uses habitually–all these small things play a big part in his character development. (The same would be true, of course, if Rocky were a short story or novel or memoir.)
By the way, the sequels to Rocky don’t work as well because the focus isn’t so much on the people and the small details as they are on training scenes and fight scenes and melodramatic arguments between the characters—the sensational rather than the human elements.
The subject of a story is almost always people, whatever else the story might concern, and originality comes not from the subject so much as from the treatment of the subject. You don’t need to search for something bizarre to write about—like a bigamist professional wrestler (although the story might be fine). You can write about something that sounds, when summarized, mundane—for instance, an old lady who lives alone in a cottage in the woods and does nothing except work with flowers in her yard and drink tea before going to bed at night.
It all comes down to the small details. In the hands of a good writer, that old lady, her cottage, her flowers, and the smell and taste of her tea, as well as the feel of the smooth, porcelain cup in her hand, become quite real for the reader, and the story ends up being truly compelling.
This article is excerpted from the WDU online course: Read Like a Writer: Learn from the Masters with Mark Spencer. Learn more and register today.
Mark Spencer is the author of Ghost Walking (novel, Moonshine Cove, 2016), A Haunted Love Story(nonfiction novel, Llewellyn Worldwide, 2012), The Masked Demon (novel, Main Street Rag, 2012),Images of America: Monticello (local history, Arcadia Publishing, 2011), The Weary Motel (novel, winner of the Omaha Prize for the Novel, published by The Backwaters Press), Only Missing (a novella, winner of the Faulkner Society’s Faulkner Award for Fiction), Love and Reruns in Adams County (novel, Fawcett-Columbine/Random House), Wedlock, (two novellas and three short stories, Watermark Press), Spying on Lovers (short stories, winner of the Patrick T.T. Bradshaw Book Award sponsored by Amelia Press) and Trespassers (Main Street Rag, 2014), a short story collection. Mark is a professor of English and Creative Writing in the MFA program and Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Several times, Mark has been named to Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.