Showing details

One of my favorite pieces of writing advice is to describe setting and details as the character interacts with them, that way those details stand out to the reader. Those details become not just words, but memorable sensations.

What do I mean by that? Well, it’s similar to advice you’ve already heard about showing vs. telling. While telling the reader things certainly has its place—and one day if I remember I may write a post in defense of telling, because it is so often maligned, like adverbs—showing the reader a detail creates sensation and memory.

For example, let’s say there’s a special kind of yarn in your world (since half of my world revolves around yarn…) and you want to bring it up in the narrative because it’s a plot point later. Well, you can have your character exposit about the softness and where it comes from and how hard it is to find.

But that’s skimmable. What’s memorable?

Perhaps your character sees someone wearing a scarf made from this fancy yarn. Whoa, right? (I so love yarn.) Maybe your character gets a chase to touch it (and you get to describe this deliciousness) and ask about the yarn. Or someone tries to steal the scarf because it’s so valuable! Exciting!

Now your readers will remember the yarn and how coveted it is. (It is now my hope that whenever you use this technique in the future, you think about yarn.)

You can use the same idea when you’re describing a new setting. Don’t just say your character is walking through a forest; mention deer crashing through the trees or way sunlight splinters through the branches. When describing a new room, let the character drag her fingertips across the desk or table. Is it rough or smooth? What does that say about the place your character just stepped inside? And how does your character react?

There’s so much you can get across with careful showing, and the deeper you go, the stronger memory you can give your reader. Though please, for the love of commas, keep your descriptions tight and easy to read. You don’t want to bog down the pace by describing everything. But by forcing yourself to choose the strongest, most important details, you’re  helping them stand out even more in the reader’s mind.


14 Responses to Showing details

  1. Julie Jun 12 2012 at 6:41 am #

    Great advice Jodi! Love the way you point out that some info might be “skimmable” if not relayed with the right details.

  2. Marc Vun Kannon Jun 12 2012 at 7:00 am #

    This technique is also much more dynamic than a simple description. I have a great dislike of static descriptive prose, and tripped across this idea (and similarly, casting all description in terms of the person viewing the scene) very early on, since I didn’t want to write descriptions yet I needed to say something in the second sentence of my first book. A problem with this technique is that people don’t usually notice things they’re very used to, so a forest dweller may not really care about the types of trees he sees every day, and it seems false to put that sort of description in. It’s considered a sign of Sherlock Holmes’ oddness that he know how many stones are in his front walk.
    You can also do some character development, by showing the things that matter to that character. It’s funny to watch a movie like The Librarian, where he’s in tombs surrounded by jewels and gold, yet he takes the mystical artifact, leaves the other stuff behind, and lives in a dumpy apartment.
    It’s also a better way to tag dialogue that a simple dialog tag. Have him do something, then say something. You know who it is talking without the need for a boring ‘he said’.

    • jodimeadows Jun 13 2012 at 6:10 pm #

      Yes to all of that!

      Your forest dweller example made me think — he’d probably notice if something were different. But yeah, hard to describe interestingly what is mundane and normal to the character.

  3. Erin Bowman Jun 12 2012 at 9:41 am #

    Great advice, Jodi! I will absolutely be thinking about yarn the next time I use this technique 😉

  4. Kat Zhang Jun 12 2012 at 11:08 am #

    Great post, Jodi! 😀 The balance between too little and too much description can be hard to hit sometimes, but getting it right can really make a story shine!

    • jodimeadows Jun 13 2012 at 6:11 pm #

      Absolutely! It’s such a pleasure to read smart, snappy or lyrical description that hits just the right balance.

  5. Valerie Lawson Jun 12 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    i totally agree. you need enough detail so that your readers don’t see a blank room with bare walls, but less than say, tolkein’s rambling paragraphs of descriptions. great post.

    • jodimeadows Jun 13 2012 at 6:12 pm #

      Gosh, yes. So much of his description was beautiful, but didn’t serve to keep the story moving forward.

  6. Rowenna Jun 12 2012 at 1:35 pm #

    Great points! And I love Marc’s point that the detail is something dynamic, something your character is actually interacting with–it’s not just “there was a dusty mirror on the wall” but “Bob traced his fingers through the dust on the mirror, leaving lines of his own face staring back at him.” OK, dumb example. But I love the concept!

    • jodimeadows Jun 13 2012 at 6:13 pm #

      No way, that’s a great example! That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about.

  7. Julia Jun 13 2012 at 2:37 am #

    This whole blog is great but I especially love your posts Jodi! If I ever achieve become a published author, I will owe you a ton of thanks 🙂

    • jodimeadows Jun 13 2012 at 6:16 pm #

      Thanks, Julia! I’m so glad this was useful to you.

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