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Devilish Details

October 23, 2014

Details make any story come alive, but how much is too much? How many are too few? Erin Bow (Plain Kate and Sorrow’s Knot) offered advice in a workshop at the annual CANSCAIP conference.

Specific details set the mood, draw attention to what is important and show an intimate knowledge of a character: His right eyelid drooped the way it did when he was tired. Unusual details will catch the reader’s eye and suggest things about the story: a rundown house patched with chicken wire.wringer

Stories told from first or third person (not omniscient) points of view should only include details that the character would notice and care about. Whether the protagonist is a child, a retired serial killer or a space alien, characters don’t notice things that are familiar to them. In historical fiction or fantasy, that limitation can be tricky. Readers need to know what is happening without being burdened by overly detailed descriptions: My mother fished a sopping wet shirt from the large white enamel tub she used to clean our family’s clothes and fed the garment between two moving rollers to squeeze out all the water.

Balance is important: My mother fished my choir shirt from the washer and fed it through the rollers to wring it dry.

Erin introduced a framework for judging where to use detail. Taught to her by instructor Hugh Cook this “ladder of specificity” moves from the most general to the most specific detail. She recommended staying at the top of the ladder to “skim past boring bits” and drilling down when you want to catch the reader’s attention.

arrowThe house
The small house
The bungalow
The empty bungalow
The abandoned bungalow with the rotting roof squeezed between two monster homes.

As Ernest Hemingway said, “Details make stories human, and the more human a story can be, the better.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Alison Colvin permalink
    October 23, 2014 8:19 am

    Great post–liked the ladder of specificity concept.

  2. October 23, 2014 9:12 am

    Very helpful. Mea culpa — too many details, The “ladder of specificity” to be my new mantra.

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