Minding the Details

In stories, people don’t usually exchange pleasantries during phone calls, but as much as people like to poke fun at the convention, it exists for a good reason. Hello and Good-Bye add nothing to the conversation two characters might be having. It tells us nothing about who they are. It offers no insight into their relationship. It usually doesn’t do anything but fill up some space.

There’s a lot of rules like that in storytelling. Stories do not usually bother with the minutiae of everyday life. I’m sure you can pick your favorite examples. One of mine is when characters have a conversation that continues through to a location change, implying that perhaps they stopped talking, traveled to a new location in silence, and then just started where the left off when they arrived.

These conventions exist because they allow us to skip the boring stuff and get the interesting bits. Most details do not matter in a story. Most details can be left out without harm, often without the audience even noticing.

I take this philosophy to heart in every story I write, and I’ve rarely, if ever, been called on it. My first novel is set in the U.S. Southwestern town of Rockwood. The specific state is left unanswered. People often assume it’s Texas because I live in Texas, but I didn’t actually set it there. I didn’t actually set it in any specific state. Like the Simpsons’ Springfield, Rockwood exact location is a well-kept secret. So secret, even I don’t know it.

At least Rockwood has a name. Many of my other novels don’t even bother with that. Divine Misfortune, Monster, and Chasing the Moon all take place in modern day cities, but the cities are unnamed. Even their geography is undefined. If you’ve read any of those, you might have not even noticed.

And you should read them if you haven’t yet. They’re all pretty good.

In my more traditional fantasy settings, I leave a lot unmentioned. What is the name of the world of A Nameless Witch? On what fantastical continent does Margle’s cursed castle dwell? What kingdom does Ogre Company call home? All unimportant to their stories.

Many of my protagonists and antagonists are not described physically in great detail. Especially the human ones. Perhaps I’ll throw in a hair color or a very general description, but often not even that. And I don’t think it makes the characters less memorable because I do give these characters details. I just make sure they’re details that matter.

But what details matter?

That depends on your story. More importantly, it depends on what you want the reader to take from the details you supply. New writers love giving details, throwing them out in great glorious bursts. What’s this character look like? What’s the room look like? Does it have a distinctive odor? What color is the carpeting?

But it’s not just physical details. New writers love giving ephemeral details as well. They’ll pause the story every other paragraph to tell you a character is thinking about. They’ll remind you of the plot constantly. But rarely in an interesting or engaging way. They’ll fill the page with details, and in the end, it’s just a series of lists and hair colors and plot points and exactly how many pieces of furniture are in the room.

But when we get down to the stuff that really matters almost none of those details do. To paraphrase: When everything is given detail, nothing is given detail.

Instead, think about what any detail adds to the story. It doesn’t have to be an important plot point. It doesn’t have to be that important at all. But it should bring something to the table.

A favorite non-literary example for me is found in the new classic Happy Death Day. One of the first interactions with our protagonist is a phone call. The call itself sets up some plot elements, but it also breaks the Nobody Says Bye rule. The characters do say bye. And they say it in the most annoying way with a long drawn out “Byyyyeeee”.

It’s a small thing, but that good-bye does a lot of heavy lifting. It tells us a lot about the relationship with the person on the other end of the line. It highlights a way of speaking that is both annoying and cutesy, highlighting Tree’s (our protagonist) character at the beginning of the story so that we can see how she changes by the end of it. And it is instantly memorable.

My wife and I have taken to ending most of our phone calls in exactly this way. An inside joke that only we get, but the best inside jokes are like that, right?

One important detail can do so much more than ten unimportant details. Readers mostly glance off that stuff. They read it, half-remember it, and then move on. A few chapters later, they probably don’t remember it because it’s not worth remembering.

As always, a lot of this will depend on what type of story you’re trying to write. Some stories, some voices, some genres are going to be more detail-oriented than others. There’s no singular right answer. There almost never is.

Thinking about why you include details is a good start. I didn’t put Rockwood in a real state because I wanted the flexibility that comes with ambiguity. I also didn’t describe the town in detail because it was unnecessary. This isn’t Lord of the Rings where plotting how long it takes the characters to get from A to Mordor is a huge part of the story structure. Details like that would only bog my story down.

Every bit of writing advice I give is really just a variation of this: Do Things With Purpose. Plot with purpose. Create characters with purpose. Write chapters with purpose. Consider themes with purpose. Craft conflicts with purpose. Create details with purpose.

Well, you get the idea.

This doesn’t mean that you need to know the purpose of everything while you’re creating your story. Even with a thorough outline it’s possible to discover new purpose. I’d argue that a big part of editing is adding purpose that you might not even have known was there at first blush.

But the final story that ends up produced should have purpose throughout. If you need “Hello”s and “Good-bye”s then by all means put them in. But put them in and all other details BECAUSE you need them and not just because.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

LEE

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