The Power of Significant Details
Proof of All That is Possible
One of the questions I often get about my novel The Staff is — how did you come up with all of this? It is all in the details. The book was placed in a natural setting, so the mood of the environment was always the mood that spilled out around the characters. While I always felt like their lives were simple, it was always another chance to make the world oppressive and remote. That being said, I often tell writers that description is important, but significant details are critical.
What does that mean?
Significant detail, according Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, is important to detailing. We know that details can be concrete (appealing to the five senses) but it also has to convey the value of idea or judgment. Details not only give us textual minutiae of the moment, but it also gives us proof. John Gardner calls it “proofs” in that, in the end, according Burroway, “we cannot help believing that the story he tells us must be true.” Writers must create description that balances the tactile five senses and may even create a sense of judgment or idea, but not at the expense of experiencing it as a reader. We can allude to the idea that the last colored leaves spinning down from the trees are the end of the fall season — something is in change, but we don’t want to say — “the falling leaves meant this was the end and death was coming.” The whole point to the narrative is to get readers to feel it, to let these details accumulate and build a web of tactile and metaphorical details to immerse the reader.
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In fiction writing workshops “show, don’t tell” is a popular catchphrase, but how does it relate to significant details? Clearly, we can shape the way writers create immersion with description that is meaningful but experiential all in the arc of a few paragraphs. This is a refined version of “show, don’t tell” and by creating a tactile element and nudging it toward an idea or a judgment without overtly explaining it, is magical. Janet Burroway makes an interesting point, the writer isn’t there to make generalized, overt judgment — the reader will do that when they understand the subtle nature of your concrete and significant detail. That garden, for example, must be important because we spent so much time there. That house is why they are all back and that is clear because we know it so well. It shifts perspective in terms of the heavy lifting — it doesn’t all belong to the writer — but the work and the detailing should be specific and meaningful enough for readers to generalize into themes, ideas, plot, and character.
The final step for significant detailing, like dialogue, is when the significant detailing then becomes a motivation or an agent of change for the character, turning the character’s motivation or plot line into something more. We see this all the time in mysteries. We find this thing (evidence) and it changes everything. Discovery and clues are what often drive these stories. So, it is important to think about how details can shift stories. Many of my stories are about finding something. Typically, it isn’t a physical thing — or it is but it isn’t the intention of the story. I think that ties into the idea that we all “want something” which ties into a character’s desire and when we find things or search for things — we are trying to fill that desire. When other people are looking for different things and have different desires that is the classic set up for “conflict.” And that is when the stories start to become meaningful and filled with tension and purpose.
It is meaningful and important for us to practice description. But not just in basic terms, but in how — through our details we can shift something from a thing to a human quality or category that is meaningful to the reader. What it looks like (feels, smells, tastes, sounds) is good practice, but that has to be connected to some kind of motivation or desire based in the realm of the character and how they are living their lives. The first part is exposition, the second element is where the creative writing becomes nuanced and crafted. Push too hard and it feels like you are telling. Don’t push enough and it feels like a simple description. Balance it and you have a sense of time and place with the detailing.
Our role as writers is to immerse the reader in a story that will accumulate with experiences — it is important to not tell the reader what you are doing, but show them. I know that is something we hear a lot, but in terms of significant details, it is another place where we can practice immersion and allow the reader to interact with those great moments of realization, those moments where we are not sitting on our couches reading, but we are there smelling the wood smoke and feeling the tension that has been slowly coming.
John Gardner called significant details “proof” because all those small and tangible moments make these stories live in our imagination and provide proof that all this is possible. Description isn’t just another tool to consider, but a part of the craft that turns small things into accumulated irony, accumulated themes, and proof that it is all possible. That is a significant part of our accumulative storytelling.
Note: All of the cited or mentioned material mentioned in this article is from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway (April 2019 University of Chicago Press). Read this book. She is a definitive guide to understand the tools and elements of fiction.