Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

Writing advice: show articles ▼▲

Details, Details

Accuracy of observance is one of the hallmarks of the good writer. Accuracy rests on the acute and sensitive observation of detail. A writer has to train herself to see, and to remember, the details that give insight, that reveal more than just colour or size. A single detail should be both a description and an insight into the personality of a character: the lines on his face – and why they're there; the way she listens to a symphony — and what she's feeling. The trick is to choose the right details to tell.

Detail doesn't mean every single thing about a character or place: 'He had brown hair two inches long at the top, tapering to a razor cut at the back of the neck, a forehead three inches from hairline to eyebrows, ears of average size set slightly higher than average on the sides of his skull...' This, of course, is absurd, and also tells us nothing about the character.

Not does a foolish exactitude: 'He had hair the colour of oak leaves five days after they begin to change colour in the autumn and eyes the shade of green found along the edges of New Zealand mussels' is both ludicrous and unrevealing. 'Thin laugh lines bracketed his stern mouth' reveals character because it gives the reader insight into the character. Again: 'As she sat listening to the symphony, her hands tore the programme into jagged fragments' gives us both the act – a single detail of behaviour – and the mentality behind the act. 'The porch sagged from the front of the farmhouse like an old, comfortable stomach, its stovepipe jutted above the weathered roof like a cowlick' is all the reader needs to know about this building. It also gives a hint about the sort of people who live there. Details ought to be powerful, and therefore must be used sparingly.

Dan remembered the afternoon Angie came. The dandelion heads were blowing fields of white feathers into the hot August wind. Behind him, the screen door opened and banged, opened and banged, as if fighting its instinct to be welcoming. He watched the taxi, half-hidden in its own dust, turn by the herd of mailboxes and rock along the straight rutted road to the house. It sagged to one side the way Ralph's taxi sagged when a big person sat in it, but when Angie got out Dan figured her no bigger than the girl on the billboard towards town who measured up small against the Dr Peppers bottle. Small, but town dressed. He had guessed her larger, based on Ma's talk.

This isn't just a picture of a male watching a taxi deliver a female visitor, it's the picture of a poor, rural farm-boy watching a dangerous woman approach. The details: the dandelions, the screen door, the mismatch of sagging taxi and small woman, create a picture of disharmony, of more than is said in this single scene, of what will be revealed as the story continues.

Detail is exactitude. 'The old farm house had a screen door' is not exact enough to conjure the image for us. 'The old farm house had screen door that banged as cheerfully as a baby with a spoon and a saucepan' gives us better detail, a better understanding of the house and its inmates. 'Angie wore a spotted dress, a little jacket and a hat' gives us a picture without an edge, without sharpness, but 'Angie wore a white dress with a dozen big red spots, a little red jacket with short puffed sleeves, and a red straw hat with white feathers raised like a fighting cock's comb' tells us much more about this stranger who has arrived at the old farmhouse.

Detail is character. 'Dan wore his baseball cap yanked low over his eyes'; 'Dan wore his baseball cap back so far the bill pointed to the sky.' Your readers will have a very different experience if the first Dan is your protagonist rather than the second Bill. Detail is language. 'She stepped on the torn programme.' 'She trod on the torn programme.' 'She ground the torn programme under her heel.' 'She scuffled the torn programme like a gum wrapper stuck to her sole.' You have to convey not just what your character is doing, but exactly what she is doing, with as few words as possible, and you must also be conveying your character's mentality at the same time. 'He called to his mother, "Angie's here"' or 'He called to his mother, 'Miss Angie's got here."' – what is the difference? The precise difference? Those two words 'Miss' and 'got' imply powerlessness (the need for respect) resistance (she got here – unfortunately), even defensiveness. It is that exact detail, that exact use of language, that turns a narrative into a vibrant story.

Detail is interpreted description:

He took the cigar from it cellophane, rolled it thoughtfully as if he could hear the mellowness of the leaves through the tips of his fingers, then struck a long match with one inward-curling stroke that almost took its head off. It flared into panicked flame. He looked at the slender fire as he inhaled one, twice, his lips pursing, inhaled a third time as if he would stand no more nonsense. The match was dismissed into its dish of sand and he sat back to enjoy his first slow puffs.

If this man is a manager in an insurance company, we have a good idea of the sort of boss he is. If he's a bicycle messenger, we have a good idea of the sort of man he aspires to be. You could merely have described the rolling of the cigar, the length of the match flame, even the brand, but it is the interpretive details that tell us what we need to know. We haven't learned everything: how he clips the end of his cigar, where he is while he smokes, what he wears, and we don't need to. We have his measure.

We reveal ourselves every minute by the way we sit, watch television, tap our foot. We judge places and people by the way they stand in line, the way the door bangs, the smell the dust smells in the August heat. 'As she approached, he watched her study the house' gives us one level of detail. 'As she approached, he watched her measure the windows of the house as if for new curtains' takes us to another layer of understanding.

Find the details, the exact details, the pertinent details, the details that reveal more than the one aspect of what you are describing, and you will have seized the secret heart of creating reality. A story that is fully conjured up becomes world so compelling that your readers, almost without realising it, will find themselves not merely reading, but experiencing it. So much so that, when they come to The End, they will look up, blink, and find the real world so much less real than the one you have made.