As a writer, you might see details as your enemy number one.
Sure, details slow down the action.
Sure, details bog down the action.
Sure, you don’t need all those details.
Wait a minute! What if you used details as a way to amp the stakes?
- When there is a threat, urgency, details become crucial. Imagine your hero is thirsty and needs a glass of water. You could skip this detail, unless your hero is in the desert, his water supplies are depleted and he might suffer a heatstroke before he reaches the next river. Sherlock Holmes abounds with details that seem trivial, but later appear crucial to solve the mystery.
- When a detail unleashes a series of meaningful events, your detail cannot be removed from the story. Someone humming a tune is quite common and low key unless a student hums a tune in the middle of Algebra class and it unleashes the anger of a tyrant teacher. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the ghost Myrtle died in a bathroom. This is a minor and rather annoying detail until she reveals that the Basilisk used the toilet in which she was hiding to go to its lair.
- When details foreshadow events, they are part of the plot. Learning that your hero teaches his dog to pause at stop signs for his safety is cute, but you can definitely skip the detail. Unless his dog is being trained to lead blind people and your hero was warned that there was a chance he was going to lose his sight. In The Familiars (# 2) by Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson, Aldwyn’s necklace appears to be only an interesting heirloom at first with its three shells that can catch sounds. But toward the end of the story, one of the shells catches a word that will be crucial to end the story in book 3.
- When they hide a real problem, details can highlight a situation. Knowing that your hero is nearsighted is not that exciting unless you know that shadows live around him in his house and he is the only one not to see them. Then, it can become a dark or hilarious detail. In The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, the detail about the Egyptian statue given to him and the fact that he gets his portrait painted can be overlooked as something mundane and quite common for the time, but the statue and the portrait are crucial elements in the destiny of Dorian.
- When details highlight a personality trait, it becomes important for the rest of the story. Eating chocolate bars is not in itself an interesting detail unless the person who does it leaves a chocolate fingerprint trail to his hideout. In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin, the mom cannot stand someone coughing. Mrs. Bennet "began scolding one of her daughters. 'Don't keep coughing so, Kitty, for heaven's sake!” Mrs. Bennet is annoyed because she thinks her husband did not jump on the occasion to meet Mr. Bingley who she thinks is a good match for her daughters. Later, as she learns her husband indeed was introduced to Mr. Bingley, she declares, "Now, Kitty, you may cough as much as you choose.”
- Details can highlight a personality, a status. Knowing that your hero scratches the ground with his foot is benign, but if you know that digging for metal is his hobby, it reveals an obsession with digging and looking for clues. A hero opening the top button of his shirt or scratching his neck where the collar rubs could indicate someone who hates being confined. If your hero is a shape-shifter and tries to pass for the head of a school, that’s a clue to identify him. In The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald, Gatzby lives in the West Egg, which is considered less trendy than East Egg, where Daisy lives. This little detail play a huge role in the story because it points out the social gap between people.
- Details can highlight an atmosphere. In Dave at Night from Gail Garson Levine, the turrets described as witch hats around an establishment become haunting and scary just by the use of details. “The whole building wasn’t made for people. It was made for witches, with plenty of room for their hats.”
Even though details seem minor, as the story progresses, they can become key parts of the story.