Specific Details Fully Engage Readers’ Minds

Deliver need-to-know background details at a rapid clip, but for transformative drama slow the pace and inject life with the sparkle of sensory and specific details. This is the passage readers will remember years later because it lit up the frontal cortex of their brains, where experiences are processed.

Show (rather than simply tell) fiction and nonfiction readers what a character experienced as he paddled up a river.  Be specific. It wasn’t just any river. It was the Courtenay River on the BC coast in the fall of 1862, when the water was alive with the twitch and splash of thousands of spawning salmon.

Marilyn Clements is writing a biography of her grandfather, who fought at Vimy Ridge in WWI. She brings that place to life, both in the present and the past, with evocative details.

It’s nouns (names) and verbs (action words) that deliver these specifics. Something happened to a particular person in a place that exists. To enrich the impact, add concrete adjectives that likewise evoke solid reality. Twitch and splash are tangible. Weak adjectives, with subjective meanings—like beautiful, lovely and nice—offer only the writer’s opinion.

This is where the fun of creative writing lies—but beware the seductive temptation to lay it on too thick: Bill James was a tall, lanky young man with limpid grey eyes, square shoulders and a crooked smile has the staccato of a list. Sprinkle just a few of those details into the unfolding story and let readers draw upon their own storehouse of experiences to imagine the rest.

Choose Details that Illustrate a Theme

Take it a step further. Choose details that heighten a mood or allude to a theme. Push those words to do double or triple duty in the readers’ imagination. “As a writer,” says Janet Burroway in her book Writing Fiction, “you are at constant pains not simply to say what you mean, but to mean more than you say.”

For a recent class, Marilyn Clements wrote about her visit to the World War I battleground of Vimy Ridge in France. We enter the long, paved entrance, dappled in sunshine, she wrote, describing the peaceful scene she encountered at the Vimy Memorial. But in the next sentence she jerks us to attention, with a detail that evokes the tragedy of this place. Around us red danger signs line the road. Unexploded bombs remain in that grassy turf, explains Marilyn. Later, the account flips back in time to her grandfather’s WWI experience at Vimy. A few remaining trees jut haphazardly, skeleton-like, from holes and trenches. It is an ugly, forbidding landscape, broken by multiple rows of barbed-wire snaking in infinite lines.

The concrete nouns, verbs and adjectives Marilyn used and the figurative allusions invite readers to make connections that heighten their ability to see, feel—and remember.

Reader Responses:

Hi Jeanette: I have just made time to look at your blog.  WOW!  It is amazing, and filled with so much.  I can’t really find the words to describe it.  Well I did find one didn’t I?  Thank you so very much.

Cheers,  Jane