Friday, October 3, 2014

Detail That Matters and Detail That Doesn't: Why the First Makes Your Writing Come Alive and the Second Dulls the Shine

Some people love lots of sensory detail in writing.  I'm one of them.  If a writer shows me the place, what the people wear, the smells and sounds, I'm right there with the story.

But I've learned over the years that detail only works if it's relevant to what's happening.  One of my teachers called it "salient detail."  In other words, if the character or narrator isn't experiencing shifts because of the detail, it's irrelevant to the reader.  It can even derail the story's pace and purpose, dulling its shine.

Example:  In my current novel I'm writing about a small plane pilot who deliberately crashes her plane to stage her own death.  With the help of a writing colleague who is a flight instructor, I researched the details inside the cockpit of a small plane.  I got a lot of details!  Maybe twenty.  I knew I didn't want to list all of them.  Too many details definitely drop the tension of the crash scene. 

What Details Do Inside Your Reader's Brain
Each time you add a detail, the reader has to imagine it.  (Or skip it--which many readers do!)  They literally have to go to a different place in their brain, away from the processing of words and into the processing of visual or sensual memories, for an instant, to do this imagining. 

This only takes an instant, but it's an instant for each detail!  If I used twenty different descriptive details about the interior of the Piper Cub cockpit, it would be a long, long imagining.  The reader would probably put the book down, having forgotten why we were in the cockpit in the first place.  (To crash the plane.)

So I put myself inside the character's head.  I thought about what she would see or experience that would have relevance for someone in this panicked state, about to stage her own death.  I chose three of the twenty that echoed this panic:
1.   Her breath fogging the windshield because it is very cold outside. 
2.  The yoke (steering wheel) of the plane, stained from years of flying, which she has been gripping for hours.
3.   The cramped space that causes her to have to twist a certain way to get her jacket.

It was hard to jettison all the great details I'd researched, but they really didn't pertain directly to this moment in my story.  Details must be relevant.  Otherwise, they are just detours from the purpose of your scene.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Take a scene or a chapter or even a paragraph of your writing and consider the use of sensory details:  what can be seen, touched, smelled, heard, tasted, or felt texturally (like temperature or roughness/smoothness of a surface). 

If you aren't using any details, add a few.

Look at what you've chosen and ask yourself if the details are relevant.  Here are the questions I like to use:

1.  Is the detail being directly experienced by the narrator in that moment?
2.  Does the detail have an important meaning for the narrator, opening up more of the inner story just because it's present?
3.  Is the detail tactile, sensory strong?

Try to eliminate any generic details and replace them with relevant ones.