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Detail Enhances Your Fiction

November 23, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified November 23, 2010

Detail done well is one of the keys to good fiction.

The right mix of details can be the difference between a memorable scene and one that could be found in any of hundreds of books—bland, vague, forgettable.

Details ground the reader in the scene—in the era, the locale, the tone. In a character’s personality.

Details give readers a sense of place and mood. They create instant identifiers—my grandma had a washtub; this reminds me of Grandma’s cellar. They evoke memories and feelings in the reader that then connect the reader to the story.

One or two well chosen words of detail can do more for a scene than long phrases of description or one more exchange of dialogue. The detail can create an instant image in the reader’s mind. And with that image comes emotion—anxiety, hope, lust, well-being. Writers can take advantage of this instant identification to create strong scenes by using a few mere words.

Of course, they do need to be the right words.


Details can be overdone. Too many details means nothing stands out. Instead of defining every little object, highlight what’s important and let the reader imagine the rest based on what you’ve already supplied.

An example of detail that fits…

Consider Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” (written by Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear). The details are clear, specific, and peculiar to the song. Here are three lines filled with marvelously descriptive detail:

Took a Louisville slugger to both headlights

Dabbing on three dollars worth of that bathroom Polo

White-trash version of Shania karaoke

In the first example, the writers don’t have her merely bashing a car with a bat, but using a specific type of bat on a specific car part.

In the second line, we see an instant picture of the guy, cheap and cheesy. He’s not only wearing Polo, but it’s the kind a guy can buy in the men’s room.

In the third, doesn’t a white-trash version of Shania karaoke evoke a clear picture? Anyone who’s been to a karaoke bar or honky tonk knows exactly what this means, can see a blowsy woman on stage singing her heart out. Those who haven’t actually seen the sight can certainly imagine it from these words.

These phrases are specific to this song, give it a flair that no other song has. The words stand out, but at the same time, they fit. That’s the writer’s goal—to use details specific to scene and story, and make sure they fit.

If the reader’s imagination takes off from the use of a few words, the writer has done his job well.


Including detail does not mean you need to identify every item with description or by brand name. Be specific, yes, but don’t overdo. Naming brands for every object in a scene is unrealistic and annoys the reader, and most characters don’t know the brand name (or genus or make) of every object in their lives.

If your character knows flora and fauna, be specific with names. If, however, your character can’t tell a rose from a daisy, leave it as it was a purple flower that looked like an imploding star.

Prada, Gucci, Manolo, & Jimmy Choo have been done and overdone.

Only use brand names and genus names when it’s character appropriate. Otherwise, go with other details to color the scene and show mood/emotion.

Don’t overload. Not every scene needs such attention to detail—chase scenes need fast, down and dirty details. But adding touches of detail specifics can ramp up the feel and memories-inducing power of your scenes and stories.

Not all writers’ styles require an abundance of detail. But every story can benefit from specific details.

My ladies pop gun didn’t intimate him. I discovered why when he pulled out his own weapon, a handsome .45 caliber big bore Glock 21.  Same gun used by the serial killer we’d been hunting.

I was pretty sure I’d won this round of hide-and-seek.



Tags:     Posted in: Craft & Style

4 Responses to “Detail Enhances Your Fiction”

  1. Judi Fennell says:

    Brilliant example with When He Cheats (which is a GREAT song, imo!)

    Devil’s in the details. And you definitely need to include only what your character would know. Nothing takes me out of a story more than when an alpha-type-macho guy mentions something like lavender water, or something he’d really never know (or call it) in “real” life. “Not guy-speak” is usually how I tag those moments.

  2. Kat Sheridan says:

    LOVED your examples, and the Shania Twain line got me even before I read your examples! And I’m with Judi. Guys are not going to call a woman’s eyes “emerald orbs”. Gotta get the details right for the gender.

  3. Judi, it is a great song. I like it too. Yes, if a character doesn’t know it—shouldn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t know it—don’t include it as a detail. As a matter of fact, one character can make fun of another for knowing all the details about a subject—cars, flowers, birds, the Regency. A touch such as that would bring even more realism to the story.

  4. Kat, the lines in this song are done very well. They create instant pictures and feelings. This shows how a few words can create exactly the right image.