It’s the Little Things That Count

I’m no expert in the art of writing, but I’ve noticed that in many of the things I’ve read over the past several years, whether fiction, nonfiction, how-to articles, whatever (while reading to improve my abilities as a writer), that there’s one primary thing that makes the better works stand out from the not-so good ones.  This is the presence of all the little details that illuminate a character.  These details are most obvious in fiction, but can occur in good nonfiction books, too.  By my use of the term “details” I’m talking about all the subtle things that bring out the character of whatever person is being described in the narrative.  What is the character doing, what do you see in his eyes, where did she put her drink, what emotion clouds her face?  Why did he light the wrong end of a filter-tip cigarette, why did she pick up her fork and place it on the right side of the plate, what color were her shoes and why did they not match her dress?

I’ve read a few unpublished manuscripts over the past several years, and I’ve seen several good and several bad.  So often, a beginning writer will write a story and tell only the story.  He picked up the briefcase.  He got in the car.  He drove away.  Which hand did he carry the briefcase in and why is this important?  What make and model car was it?  Did he drive away slowly, or burn rubber?

What’s missing is detail.  Especially when using a third-person point-of-view, these details bring out the real nature of the protagonist or antagonist.  I like the details because they transport me closer to the person (emotionally, not physically).  I feel as though I know them better by learning about their eye color, the mole on her forehead, the baggy shirt he’s wearing.  I can see them more clearly in my mind’s eye.  Simply telling a story isn’t enough, we have to learn about the character.  We have to journey inside them and get to know them on a much more personal basis, and the little details of everyday life can do this in spades.  (Cliche alert.  Sorry)

That’s true of the good guy as well as the bad guy.  I’d like to see the interior of the private detective’s apartment; I don’t want to just be told that he went home and had dinner.  I’d like to be able to visualize the inside of the fabulous crystalline castle owned by the sinister mastermind of world domination.  So many excellent details that tell us so much about the person and make him/her real.  Can you imagine reading about, say, Hitler, and not being told about his mustache?  Or the way his hand shook and his face turned purple when he flew into one of his many rages when he was told that the Army of the Third Reich failed to meet a certain objective?  I can’t.

But one of the important uses of these details is that, in addition to telling us about the character, they serve to bring a pause in the action.  They could, it might be said, allow us to take a breath from a scene of intense emotional conflict.  A pause as short as one second, or maybe a minute.  Too much action can get hard to follow if it goes on too long, and a brief glimpse into the protagonist’s eyes can be refreshing and remind us of the real reason he’s has gotten himself into so much trouble.

Yes sir, the details count.  No sir, don’t leave them out.

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