Key Details in a Story

Key Details in a Story 0

Over lunch, a writer friend and I were discussing our recent efforts – his first novel (specifically his first chapter), and a short story idea of mine – and the topic of details came up. I was beating him up just a little bit because I felt he was over detailing his chapter, and ultimately dragging it down.

I tossed out an analogy that I had been thinking about recently and it seemed to really click for him. As a 3D illustrator, I use some rendering options that make use of sampling, where the render engine pulls just a little bit of info for all over the scene to enrich the image (global illumination is one of these technologies, in case you’re interested). Using this makes things far more interesting – but the more samples you use, the slower the render engine gets.

Story details are similar, sampling everything and pulling just a few key bits of information that enrich the story. Too many, and the story starts bogging down. Providing just enough will give the reader a strong framework and feeling, and their minds will fill in the rest (and reading is a partnership with a story).

Choosing the right details are just as important: they should never be arbitrary, but instead contribute to the story in some fashion, either giving us a better glimpse of a character or environment, or advancing the story (now or in the future). They should also support your theme, or subtext – not in a heavy-handed way, but subtly, building up in layers like a good painting. And keeping the number of details down will give the ones that are there more weight, reinforcing the tale you want you tell.

An example of this: you make your main character left handed. If you did this just to add some flair to the story, I as a reader would feel cheated. You chose to tell me this bit of distinctive information because it should be important. Perhaps it’s to reinforce the character’s artistic nature, but it should come into play at some point – proof that he didn’t do something, or a challenge because he only has access to his right hand.

I am left handed, btw, but I only mention it because it adds weight to my example and it reinforces my earlier comment about being an illustrator. See how easy that is? Of course, by now, you should start asking “why did you select that image for this post…?”

Another example: using weather in a story. If the day is a normal day, you don’t mention it unless we’ve been shown a series of nasty days and suddenly a nice day is just gorgeous (and thus altering the character’s mood), or because it being nice out now is a setup for it turning nasty soon. If it’s windy out, have that wind mean something – it brings a cold chill when a character isn’t dressed for it, or it carries something away (or to someone). And to take it further, the wind is there as a metaphor to the character’s change, or it becoming cold supports your character’s increasingly chilly thoughts or intentions.

Use details judiciously, with consideration to their relevance and how they aid the story, and you’ll find that your writing is tighter and more memorable.

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